Mayor Bryan Paterson announced publicly, Thursday, Nov. 11. 2021, that Porstmouth Olympic Harbour would most likely be the site of a pilot project using “tiny homes,” also known as sleeping cabins.
Local housing advocate and entrepreneur, Chrystal Wilson, is the Executive Director of Our Livable Solutions (OLS), a not-for-profit organization that aids homeless individuals and families in Eastern Ontario communities. Wilson and OLS have been advocating for the project in the City for some time and the idea finally won support from Council on October 19, 2021.
The plan is for 10 of the 12 x 8 ft (3.7 x 2.4 m) cabins (which contain heating, lighting, smoke detection, and internet access, among other everyday essentials) to be placed at the harbour directly in front of the now-closed Bar 53. The site is practical because it already has a communal central building for facilities like washrooms, showers, laundry, and a communal kitchen.
Wilson explained, “The City of Kingston has been looking for public lands that [the cabins]can be placed on. So, we were getting a few options and took a look at them with an advisory committee and with people who are unhoused, and Portsmouth had the highest likelihood of success for the population that we’re trying to support.”
Wilson said that the project hasn’t been easy to get support for. “We kept getting stopped by people who said ‘there’s no evidence that this would work’,” she said, stating rhetorically, “Yeah, of course, because nobody’s tried it.”
“There are [tiny home] communities all over North America,” she pointed out, “but those communities haven’t had studies: we haven’t seen health studies from them, etc. where you can build evidence.”
She said naysayers just don’t have the imagination and drive to try something different.
“Like, prove us wrong. We have to try in order to know for sure how we can do this,” Wilson posed. “Because what we do know is, the Housing First model is not working. And we do know that what we’re doing right now, it’s not working. And we do know that the people we support, need more support than what they can often get when they come to a shelter by themselves. “
“So what we’re doing differently with this pilot is working with evidence-based researchers at the Queen’s University Faculty of Health Sciences. That’s part of why Vic Sahai is part of our team, to show whether or not this model actually works,” she explained, “So, we were willing to take the risk, nobody else was willing to take the reins and try, and as an entrepreneur, I’m pretty risk-tolerant.”
It is a more public location than the group had originally sought, she said, but, “one of the reasons we were willing to consider it is because of how welcoming facility staff were, and how willing they were to accommodate the needs that we were identified.”
The laneway, which will be behind the houses, must be kept clear for a fire lane, but also for public access to the harbour, she pointed out, “One of our concerns was retaining access for lots of other people [using the harbour], and making sure that people we are taking care of are secure and feel comfortable.”
The houses will be lined up in front of what is now the patio seating area, with their doors pointing toward the building to form a sort of privacy barrier. “A few of the tables will be moved or taken out so that we have more space in here. This will be a kind of a common outdoor smoking area or hang out area, and then we’ll work to make it more welcoming,” Wilson explained, noting that it will be unhoused individuals who have mobility problems they will be looking to place in the tiny community.
A walkway will be constructed to provide a more accessible entrance to the washroom and shower facilities and the communal kitchen area. Accommodations will be made to the existing shower and washroom facilities to allow for accessibility, and some current stalls will have partitions removed to allow for more maneuverability. Likewise, the kitchen counter will be lowered to accommodate users who need wheelchairs.
The project will also employ some people to assist with daily living, Wilson said.
“We’re going to be hiring care coordinators, I’m a volunteer, and I’ll be unpaid. Within our group, what we hold really strongly is that we recognize that frontline workers are usually the ones that get shafted in this kind of project. And so we want to see that any of the money that’s available for staffing goes to the frontline workers first,” she disclosed. “So, as an administrator — and this goes for all of our leadership — we are unpaid. We’re making sure that people who are doing the heavy lifting are the ones getting paid. Also, we are going to be fighting for benefits, which is unusual.”
The care coordinators’ jobs will be to liaise with community supports, such health care agencies, and to keep track and help people on site. “And through that tracking, help teach them how to do some of that management themselves do, because what we do see in this population a lot is really high intelligence,” Wilson expressed. “But executive functioning skills are not where they could be. So, we’re going to help kind of encourage that through our help.”
The care coordinators’ support is for practical day-to-day life management help, she said, “Like, ‘what is it you need today? What can I help you do? How can I enable you to be independent?’ So, some people will be cooking on their own because they’re capable, but some people might need a little bit of extra help. Loving Spoonful will be coming in to give some cooking classes.”
The aim is to change the way support is offered, and to do it in a way that the clientele is asking for.
“In the past, we’ve created a system where people are dependent on food handouts, and take-out containers everywhere, there’s nowhere for somebody to cook in any of the current congregate settings. And people would love to cook for themselves, so this is part of why this is the number two request we get — Number one is for housing and number two, we get requests for being able to cook and make their own meals and have hot meals, and plan meals and not have rice and noodles, which is what they get currently, high-carb diets,” Wilson elaborated.
“So, doing things this way will help as closely as possible mimic what would what it would be like if they had their own apartments, so that we can transition them out of being unhoused in a tangible way to where you operate in your house. Hopefully, that will create better successes when people become housed — that’s our goal.”
The project location will be presented for approval at the City Council’s next meeting, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. To read the nine-page report on ‘Winter Initiatives Supporting the Homeless Community’ being presented to Council by CAO Lanie Hurdle (which the sleeping cabin project is part of), click here.