New residents moving into Portsmouth Olympic Harbour

Just in time for the predicted heaviest snowfall of the season, a selected few are moving into newly-constructed cabins on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. With the help of volunteers and sponsors, the team at Our Livable Solutions has worked to create functional and comfortable living spaces. Ten individuals will soon be calling these 8’x12′ energy-efficient cabins at Portsmouth Olympic Harbour “home.”

Sleeping Cabins at Portsmouth Olympic Harbour face their support building. Photo by Taylor Tye.

Founder and executive director Chrystal Wilson explained that she and her team at Our Livable Solutions (OLS) are led by a steering committee of individuals experiencing houselessness in the Kingston area. Additionally, Wilson listened to those who were living at and involved in the Belle Park Encampment, established in the summer of 2020. During that time, the need for community housing, such as a tiny home community, was at the forefront of the encampment’s thoughts. Since then, Wilson said she has been “advocating for the City Council to consider an alternate kind of solution to homelessness — One where we can keep people safe, but give them as much independence as possible.”

On Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, Kingston City Council approved of the motion set forth to create a micro-community of tiny homes. Thus, OLS inaugurated a pilot project to create safe, livable, transitional housing informed by those with lived experience of homelessness. The sleeping cabins at Portsmouth Harbour will be the first iteration of this concept. The sleeping cabin project will run until April 30, 2022. At the end of that period, evaluations from all stakeholders involved will help inform best practices for future cabin community initiatives, according to the OLS website.

Why Porstmouth Olympic Harbour?

Because the cabins aren’t equipped with their own toilets or showers, to be fully operational, the project needs a support building that offers these essentials. As such, when designing the project, the City of Kingston’s facility staff looked at which facilities were available. The two options included Confederation Basin or Portsmouth Harbour. The recent closure of the Bar 53 snack bar left an available and promising space for OLS to convert and use. Today, Bar 53 has been converted into a warm and welcoming support building for the sleeping cabin residents. Beyond its front doors is a large countertop with essential appliances, including a sink, stove, laundry machines and the like. There are also plenty of tables for eating and socializing, as well as washrooms and showers.

The transformed Bar 53 common space featuring essential appliances. Photo by Taylor Tye.

Cost of operation

These cabins don’t come without a cost, however, and each cabin costs approximately $16,000 to construct. That’s without accounting for the 24/7 onsite staff at Portsmouth Olympic Harbour or the operational costs. Our Livable Solutions has received funding support through the City of Kingston and from the Social Services Reserve Fund. To fund the entire pilot project, $150,000 came from a donation to the City of Kingston from the Vuorinen Estate, and up to $257,000 will be funded from the Social Services Relief Fund Phase 3 from the provincial government. (This is further explained on the OLS website)

Volunteers, staff, and community donations

Of course, these efforts don’t run on financial assistance alone. OLS is thankful to have “a really great team of volunteers.” These volunteers have been responsible for much of the groundwork involved in making the pilot project possible. For instance, when figuring out how to furnish the cabins, the team “immediately went to work sending out emails. They created a program where there was a sponsor for each cabin.”

The sponsorship model ensures that each cabin receives enough furniture — such as a bed, bedding, a chair, fridge, and table — to create a comfortable, independent living space for the new residents. The sponsors are a mix of faith groups and individuals from the Kingston community who have stepped up to help out.

During a phone interview on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022, Wilson shared, “I’m watching out in the cabins as a ton of volunteers are getting them set up and furnished, which has been amazing to witness.” With two years of work finally coming to fruition, when looking into the cabin, Wilson said, “there’s a bed and a mini-fridge. The heaters are already in place, making it homey for people. Then, once people are in, they can adjust it to their individual needs.”

A peek inside a cabin as it is being furnished on the evening of January 15, 2022. Photo by Taylor Tye.

How were the residents selected?

With only 10 cabins to offer and hundreds of unhoused people in the Kingston area, a selection process was conducted in order to ensure a fair opportunity to live in a sleeping cabin. OLS started the process by reviewing a list of names of those known to be unhoused for a period of at least six months from the City of Kingston database. According to Wilson, this list doesn’t include as many individuals as their team is aware of. This is due to the recording of data stemming from access to service providers. Those who don’t access services, such as warming centers or shelters, are far more likely to go undetected by the system. Beyond the City of Kingston roster, OLS also received names from media connections, or referrals by service and health care providers.

“I’ve been advocating for a place for people to be able to come to heal after they’ve been in the hospital,” Wilson expressed. “Right now, if you’re unhoused and you need major surgery, some medical staff will not consider it because they know you can’t heal safely. So, we’ve been advocating for beds just specifically for that reason.”

Although the selection process was “heartbreaking,” according to Wilson, the final selection of residents includes individuals with a spectrum of lived experiences. Ultimately, the goal is to assist each individual “in becoming as independent as possible so that when they transition into permanent housing, it’s not a shock.” Therefore, the team at OLS can continue to help as many people as possible, as the original 10 residents move on to more permanent housing.

Sustainable self-sufficiency

Although regular meals and nutrition will not be provided, potable water, mini-fridges, and a stove are provided to the residents. “The expectation is that people will cook their own food and source their own food,” Wilson said. Although Portsmouth Olympic Harbour is not situated nearby to grocery stores, there are “volunteers who are set up just to do runs to the food bank for people.”

Portsmouth Village, a safe and welcoming neighborhood

Essential items that were donated to residents of the sleeping cabins. Submitted photo.

To some, the idea of houseless individuals moving closer to family neighborhoods might be a concern. In regards to security and safety precautions OLS is taking at the harbor, Wilson said that neighbors should rest assured knowing that there are trained staff onsite 24/7 to be of assistance to residents.

Wilson would like to thank Portsmouth Village and the extended Kingston community for their overwhelming amount of support on this project. In the weeks leading up to the occupation of the cabins, community members have been motivating and supportive in their efforts, Wilson reported.

“Everybody wants people to see people get in from the cold. You’re likely to hear the community’s frustration that the cabins aren’t yet in use. It actually makes me happy, you know, because it means that people believe [in what we’re doing],” she explained. “I’m glad the community is taking a stance because they think this is important, too.”

“I think the nice thing about this project is people can see themselves helping in some way. We want to enable people to participate as much as possible, but we also want to keep our residents comfortable and not overwhelmed.”

– Chrystal Wilson

Upon move in on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022, each of the new residents will receive care packages including essentials such as socks, hats and mitts, hand warmers, and snacks. The care packages were put together by neighbors in Portsmouth Village — a welcomed gesture in stark juxtaposition to some of the sentiments expressed by nearby residents when the placement of the project was announced.

OLS is excited to welcome in the newest residents of Portsmouth Olympic Harbour, some of whom already began moving in their personal belongings in on Sunday night. They look forward to the next few months, and hope that the reports after the pilot project ends its trial in April will generate a positive step forward in enabling assistance to many more people.

Acknowledging the combined efforts of community volunteers and sponsors in bringing the sleeping cabins project to this point, Our Livable Solutions said would like to thank the following sponsors for their generosity: Anne Kershaw, Lea Westlake, Annie Clifford and Greg Tilson, Glenburnie United Church – Janet Pentney, Caitlin Lloyd and family, and the Kingston Women’s Interfaith Group – Janice Barling.

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