An experimental tiny home community for those experiencing homelessness, run by Our Livable Solutions (OLS), has been at Portsmouth Harbour since early January 2022. This sleeping cabins pilot project, funded by a mix of a City grant and estate finances, was set to wrap up on Saturday, Apr. 30, 2022, however, with 10 residents still relying on these shelters and no future location for the cabins secured yet, an extension has been granted for another month – until Tuesday, May 17, 2022 – as OLS continues to search for a new location.
The pilot project was a topic that dominated much of the Kingston City Council meeting on Tuesday, Apr. 19, 2022 (full agenda here). The meeting began, as usual, with delegations, and saw OLS founder, Chrystal Wilson, explain the situation and make a case for the extension of the pilot.
Several delegations and petitions demonstrate community support for cabins
“We’re just asking you tonight to consider continuing the program, allowing us to continue the work that we’ve been doing, and keeping the 10 residents that we do have right now stable,” Wilson began.
“What I’ve seen and what I’ve learned is this cabin community has been a success. We’ve been able to stabilize people who have otherwise not engaged in traditional supportive housing,” she said, noting that the project has, “allowed people to stabilize, it has enabled the medical community to engage with people who are in desperate need of medical assistance.”
Wilson also noted a positive side effect of the project: within the broader Kingston community, the sleeping cabins pilot has deepened awareness and understanding of the great need for housing assistance.
“Thank you to the people who changed their minds,” Wilson expressed, noting that a number of those who participated in OLS’s community engagement events, such as the organization’s Ask OLS Anything ongoing video series, had originally opposed the idea and “had a difficult time understanding how it could help.”
“[They have] come back to us and apologized, and said that they can see the difference in our community,” she said. “And so we’re thankful for them for keeping our minds open to possibilities.”
Following Wilson’s delegation, the floor was opened up for questions. Councillor Jim Neill was the first to speak, asking if Portsmouth Harbour’s other “residents” – the sailing community, and more specifically, the Canadian Olympic training Regatta Kingston (CORK) – are willing to extend their hospitality towards the cabins into their increasingly-busy spring and summer season.
Wilson indicated that CORK does, “support [the cabin] community and that eventually we will be in their way, but they were comfortable with us waiting until May 17 to transition to another location.”
Neill then raised the question of alternative options, should the OLS cabins have to close down entirely. “Would you foresee [the residents] going to a shelter or going to the integrated care hub?” he asked.
Wilson responded, asserting her concerns of members, “sliding backward if they leave this [cabin] community instead of moving into housing. A number of our residents have already expressed that they will not go to the Integrated Care Hub, and they will not go to traditional shelter settings. They have maybe tried those routes before, or they have reasons to avoid it.” Furthermore, Wilson added, “My concern, and what they’ve expressed to me, is that they will likely end up back in the places that we pulled them out of, and that is heartbreaking to me.”
The conversation then shifted towards the logistics of the operation, as Councillor Simon Chapelle advocated for those who may still be unsure or concerned about safety, particularly in association with the stigmas of houseless people and sheltering them in a neighbourhood such as Portsmouth Harbour. “I was somewhat skeptical at the beginning,” admitted Chapelle. “I was concerned about issues like policing, and vandalism and potential impacts on those expensive boats that were nearby.”
Chapelle asked Wilson to clarify, “how the community existed in a positive way there, and how there wasn’t any issues with the boats, or the properties, and the maintenance, and keeping the place clean.”
While OLS staff members have a list of chores to complete on each shift, most of the time, those chores — cleaning common spaces, mopping floors in the washrooms, etc. — have been done by the cabin residents, Wilson said, noting the residents do so of their own volition.
“It’s the residents that have taken ownership of this location,” she said. “In terms of policing, we have not had any police calls against our own residents.”
Cost of cabins and their continuation
Chapelle’s second question concerned the finances of the operation from “a taxpayer’s perspective,” noting that the pilot had been running “well underbudget,” and asking how the pilot had been “so successful” while being “so cost-effective.”
Wilson was quick to outline the project’s budget, detailing that “the initial capital outlay of $191,000 was for the purchase of the cabins and operating costs, which runs at approximately $3,500 per week, and that’s to mostly cover staffing costs.”
She went on to break down the costs further. “As you’ve seen from the information report, with two very generous donations from community members [totalling] $250,000, this project has cost taxpayers $7,000 of provincial funds.”
Chapelle expressed with humility that he had changed his previous stance of not supporting the project, and has since “learned a lot” from observing Wilson and OLS’s work with the residents. His final question to Wilson concerned the cabin’s next location.
“I understand that City staff are looking for a permanent location,” said Wilson. “[In the meantime, OLS] has been tasked with finding motel rooms for 10 residents, plus one as an office.”
“Unfortunately, so far the only option we’ve been able to find is motel rooms at the cost of $129 per night, per hotel room,” Wilson continued in dismay. “It will increase by $149 per night in the summer.” Renting hotel rooms, however, is simply a short-term option as both parties continue to look for a permanent housing location.
‘If somebody has land, that’s really what we need the most’
Councilor Ryan Boehme asked what community members can do to help support the success and eventual expansion of the sleeping cabins project. “How can people reach out with either volunteering time or donations or materials to support this further?”
“We need a location; a permanent location,” asserted Wilson after expressing deep gratitude for the immense outpouring of support the pilot project had already received. “If somebody has land, that’s really what we need the most.”
Following Wilson were delegations from sleeping-cabin resident, Richard Hewitt, and from neighbours in Portsmouth Harbour, Andrew McCane and Eva Perky, who all spoke to the positive experiences they’ve had in association with the pilot.
Two petitions were also presented to council in favour of extending the sleeping cabins project. The first petition was presented by Councillor Jeff McLaren, bearing over 140 signatures from those self-identifying as experiencing homelessness and stating that they are in favour of the work of OLS. The second petition came from the Kingston Women’s Interfaith Group, and bore at least 468 signatures from individuals also in favour of an extension.
The motion that was presented to Council had two parts. The first part acknowledged that the original deadline for the removal of the sleeping cabins situated the Portsmouth Olympic Harbour site was Saturday, Apr. 30, 2022, that there have been no negative complaints from the Portsmouth community regarding the current location, and that the proposed alternative to this location may be temporary motel lodgings, at a considerable cost to taxpayers. In light of those acknowledgements, the second part moved that City council should grant an extension for the current location of the sleeping cabins, and that staff be directed to consult with the community and report back to council on Tuesday, May 17, 2022, with recommendations for an alternative location for the sleeping cabins.
Neill explained that, “the wording [of the motion] gives staff an adequate time to work on a more permanent solution. But it doesn’t force out those 10 people who are currently living in sleeping cabins, which is definitely a positive, and it doesn’t force the City to have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for motel rooms in order to accommodate them once we say they can no longer stay in the cabins. So, hopefully this is a frugal and a sensible remedy to what was a kind of impending situation.”
What happens to the cabins on and after May 17?
Councillor Peter Stroud noted, “This is a difficult conversation for us to have. We have such a critical need for affordable housing. We have almost no supportive housing. So, what do we do now? From everything that I heard from [City] staff tonight, an extension most definitely is worthwhile. I really encourage and urge the community as a whole, and anybody who may have property, to come and help us as a City to solve this.”
Stroud highlighted the complexity of the housing crisis in Kingston, stating, “What I really don’t want to do tonight is create this false sense of security that on May 17, we’re going to have this magical solution. Staff have actually been trying to solve this since the fall. And if it was so simple, we wouldn’t be having this conversation tonight.”
Stroud proposed consideration of a hybrid model of the project. “The cabins [could] go somewhere in this in the summer, and come back to Portsmouth in the winter.”
Councillor Wayne Hill did not support a continuation of the project beyond the proposed May 17 deadline, but noted that he remained flexible on possible next-steps, saying, “I look forward to the report that staff are going to bring back in terms of options.”
Motion to extend deadline for one month passes, work still to be done
After much debate and comments from multiple members of City staff, the motion to extend the pilot’s deadline for one month was passed unanimously. However, the question of what will happen to the cabins and their residents after this date still remains to be answered.
As it stands, after May 17, the cabins will have to go into storage for the duration of time it takes to secure another location for them to be set up, with residents being placed into a short-term housing solution such as motels, despite the increased cost.
The full video of the Kingston City Council meeting on Tuesday, Apr. 19, 2022, can be viewed on the City’s YouTube channel.