For the homeless, Kitchener's Better Tent City offers alternative to typical shelters
‘People here live life on their own terms,’ says site co-ordinator Nadine Green
On a former industrial site in Kitchener, Ont., there are approximately two dozen brightly coloured cabins. At less than 100 square feet each, they are so small they don't require a building permit.
But for people facing homelessness, the small homes offer crucial features: privacy, a door to lock and a safe place to keep their belongings.
"It's like being at home," said Richard King, who lives in one of the cabins. A contractor by trade, he's built a makeshift kitchenette in his cabin and hung knick-knacks on the walls.
"If I need an escape, I just come out here, throw on a movie, close and lock the door and I've got my own little corner to get away."
King is one of roughly 50 residents of A Better Tent City, a community of people living in tents and small cabins set up as an alternative to the homeless shelter system.
The cabins surround a grey metal building that used to be a venue for conferences and events. Inside is a former bar that has been retrofitted into a kitchen, and a large open room where newcomers can stay in tents until a cabin frees up.
Tent encampments have been popping up in cities across the country during the pandemic, as COVID-19 outbreaks hit homeless shelters and people living on the streets try to find a safe place to stay.
Keeping the community running is co-ordinator Nadine Green, who lives on-site in a cabin of her own.
Her role includes everything from sorting out donations to breaking up fights — something she says happens about once a day.
"Sometimes people are stressed out … and they may start a fight just for no reason. And then a lot of people have addiction issues, and that can make a difference," said Green.
"Whatever happens, we just work with it."
The community is unique, Green said, because residents get to live life on their own terms. They can live in a cabin alone, as a couple or with a pet — something that isn't always possible in more traditional homeless shelters.
"Here, you're given the opportunity to prove that you can act like an adult," said King, who often pitches in with repairs and other projects.
Because the site isn't part of the region's official shelter system, it's run by a skeleton crew. Funding comes from a hodgepodge of different sources, such as community donations and a church partnership. Some residents are also paying rent through their social assistance shelter allowance.
A local health van stops by twice a week for those who need to see a nurse.
Volunteers come most days to drop off meals and — depending what COVID-19 restrictions are in place — to come inside and cook. So far, there have been two confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the site.
Housing costs on the rise
In recent years, homelessness has been a growing issue in Kitchener.
In the last decade, the average cost of rent in the city has increased by about 40 per cent, numbers from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation show.
There are roughly 6,000 households on a regional waiting list for affordable housing and about 200 people who are chronically homeless, according to the region's director of housing services.
Behind the name of the project — A Better Tent City — is the idea of making a traditional tent city safer and more viable through better infrastructure and a willing landlord, said Jeff Willmer, one of the volunteers behind the project.
At the very least, you're not trespassing, and you've got a modest house of your own," said Willmer, who is also the former chief administrative officer for the City of Kitchener.
The willing landlord in this case is Ron Doyle, a self-described "retired industrialist" who owns Lot 42, the former industrial site-turned-event venue the community sits on.
Doyle and Willmer knew each other through city hall, and reconnected in the fall of 2019 over a shared interest in building alternative housing for people facing homelessness.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada, and with no events or conferences on the horizon, Doyle decided to offer up his property for the initiative.
He called Green and asked her to start moving people in.
"We didn't ask anybody, we just did it," said Doyle.
In July 2020, Kitchener city council held a special meeting about the place.
Council had some conditions — such as installing smoke alarms in all the cabins — but in the end, passed a zoning exemption allowing the community to stay on Lot 42 for up to a year.
Several challenges facing community
Since the community has been up and running, there have been "quite a number of challenges," said Willmer.
Cost is one, since the community isn't part of the government's official shelter system.
Conflict is another issue.
Data from the Waterloo Regional Police Service show an increasing number of calls to the area since the spring of 2020, when the first residents moved in.
"We have seen and looked at different pieces, including complaints around theft," said Chief Bryan Larkin. "It's an industrial area, as you know, with some commercial businesses."
Larkin noted crime and disorder happen in places where people are — and it isn't surprising to see flare-ups in parts of the city where a community has recently moved in.
"That's the reality of what happens," said Larkin. He said that meeting people's basic needs — such as housing — should help cut down on crime in the long run.
Looking to the future
Right now, the clock is ticking on A Better Tent City. The site is currently for sale, although Doyle said he is committed to keeping it up and running through the end of the one-year zoning exemption.
Willmer said volunteers are in talks with the city and the regional government about what to do next. Everything is on the table, he said, from helping current residents find supportive housing, to moving the project to a new site.
King thinks A Better Tent City should stay.
"You make friendships and you bond, and that goes a long way," he said.
"I think it would be ideal if we had a half a dozen of these little communities."
Ryan Pettipiere is the director of housing services for the Region of Waterloo, which includes the City of Kitchener. He confirmed that officials are working "to explore options" for the site, but couldn't say at this point what those options are. However, the region recently announced plans to spend about $20 million in the next two years on affordable housing.
When asked if officials would consider expanding the Better Tent City to multiple locations, he said their main priority is to build more permanent, affordable housing for people, rather than more short-term or transitional shelter options.
For now, volunteers with A Better Tent City are doing what they can to finesse the set-up at Lot 42. A methadone program recently started on-site to help residents get off drugs, and about 10 people are taking part.
As for Green, she believes there will always be a place for A Better Tent City.
"I hope we get to stay," she said. "And if we don't stay, we'll find another place."
"We're not worried, because if a homeless person gets six months of living somewhere, that's a big deal for them … Having six months here, it's good."
Written and produced by Paula Duhatschek.