Hamilton

'A more positive path forward': How tiny shelters could combat homelessness in Hamilton

The Hamilton Alliance Tiny Shelters initiative hopes to build 20 cabins, each measuring eight by 10 feet, in a soon-to-be-found location in Hamilton.

The project aims to bring stability and support to people experiencing homelessness

The Hamilton Alliance Tiny Shelters is planning to create 20 small shelters to house homeless people. The project would be similar to the Better Tent City, shown here, which is currently operating in Kitchener. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC Windsor )

A small community of 20 tiny homes, each measuring eight by 10 feet and scattered around a soon-to-be-decided location in Hamilton — this is the vision that the organizers of the Hamilton Alliance Tiny Shelters (HATS) have in mind to help fight homelessness in the city. 

But more than that, the homes represent a larger picture of that vision: raising awareness about the lack of affordable housing in Hamilton. 

HATS is a coalition of groups including the Social Planning and Research Council and the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction. 

The latter's director, Tom Cooper, said the planned community is not meant to be a "permanent feature." 

"It's a place inside a space to keep people safe and warm. That's much better than living in a tent or sleeping in an alley," he explained.

Supporters of the project are expected to speak about it before Hamilton's emergency and community services committee during its meeting Thursday afternoon.

Occupancy of the tiny shelters will hopefully provide more than just a place to stay, including harm reduction programs and features such as a garden, said Cooper.

"This idea was not optimal, but really what we thought we could do quickly and fairly cheaply to respond to the humanitarian crisis that's facing so many people who are unhoused in Hamilton."

Tom Cooper, director at Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction. (Tom Cooper)

Encampments have become more visible during the pandemic. That visibility has brought with it debate over the city's approach of tearing down tents in public spaces, protests and even an attempt at a court injunction to block the city's bylaw.

HATS is largely inspired by its Kitchener-Waterloo counterpart, A Better Tent City. 

Cooper said they've received much guidance from the team behind that project which already offers small shelters, stating that A Better Tent City provided "direction on us getting set up." 

HATS has not found a location they can utilize, but is working with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board to determine a suitable property. 

Cooper explained that HATS will need to secure a spot before "we get too many people excited." 

As of Monday evening, the HWDSB, HATS and the city, had met to determine whether the now-closed Sir John A. Macdonald High School site might be a suitable location. 

Housing crisis 

Senior levels of the government are already investing in housing within the city. 

At the end of last month, the federal government pledged $26.7 million to fund around 109 affordable housing units in Hamilton. 

But Cooper said waiting on those housing options might not be viable. 

"It's going to take a while to get that housing built, and we need short-term solutions," he said.

"If we just look at the weather in the last couple of weeks, the freezing temperatures… it's unacceptable for people to be sleeping outside and we need other options."

The bigger picture

Julia Kollek is a primary organizer of HATS. 

She recalled a time when she noticed somebody living under a railway bridge around the corner from her home. 

"I couldn't stand it any longer, I had to do something." 

She said HATS will provide a warm cabin and two keys to accompany them, to allow those using the shelters to "have the experience of housing" and "privacy." 

"We will have all residents, like in KW, sign an agreement with certain parameters of how people will behave in this community." 

Julie Kollek, a main organizer of HATS (Julie Kollek)

But aside from those parameters, Kollek said there's as much freedom in the community as anywhere else. 

"Shelters are not for everybody, I can't imagine what it would be like. There's incidents of violence, and COVID outbreaks right now." 

The plan is for the these tiny homes to be transitional, in hopes that many will move into more permanent housing solutions that are affordable. 

She said it's important to look after those who are most vulnerable in the community and don't necessarily have the option of getting on the "real estate ladder."

Kollek added that programs like the Ontario Disability Support Program only offer around $400 a month in some cases. 

"How on earth can anybody live off that?" she asked. 

A Better Tent City 

The original project started in Kitchener-Waterloo was an initiative launched by Jeff Willmer and Ron Doyle. 

The two co-founders worked on the concept for several months before it turned into something in spring of 2020. 

Similar to HATS, Willmer mentioned that a big difficulty they originally encountered was finding a property for A Better Tents City. 

"It seems to be one of the biggest challenges around this not only in Kitchener, but in other communities that are trying to create something for unsheltered people." 

It's an issue that persists in many Ontario communities, Willmer said. 

A Better Tent City in Kitchener features a row of 42 insulated cabins, each measuring 8 by 10 feet. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC News)

Nevertheless, he said he's been helping people interested in creating similar projects in their own communities. At the moment, he's "working with people in six or eight communities, at least." 

Another challenge was that some in the community had experienced vandalism. Willmer described that as "one of the unfortunate side effects" but said it didn't derail the project. 

Although risk for similar issues is possible, Willmer pointed out that theft and vandalism is an issue that's currently distributed around the community and "not quite focused in one place." 

"I think because we've made life more stable for [residents] and more supported, they're much less inclined or less needful of committing crimes to support their life style." 

He said that their project, as well as similar ones around the province, allows people to start building toward a future.

"That really helps people regain control over their lives, and have a more positive path forward." 

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