Days after Kingston City Councillors voted to end the City’s sleeping cabin project, two years after the project’s inception, advocates for the program are speaking out and voicing their displeasure regarding the decision. Chrystal Wilson of Our Liveable Solutions (OLS), who has run the sleeping cabin program since 2021, said staff and residents were “blindsided” by the result.
In addition to disappointment with the decision reached by council, Wilson said she was particularly displeased with some of the comments made by councillors and members of the public.
“More disturbing than the decision that was made were the words that were said in that [Council] Chamber and the accusations about our residents that were said by people who’ve never visited our site and never talked to our residents,” she remarked.
Wilson was particularly disappointed in the way Pittsburgh District Councillor Ryan Boehme characterized the sleeping cabins as “sheds,” as he noted, “We would not condone this type of living for a dog during the winter.”
In response to Boehme’s comments, Wilson said, “The words that came out of Councillor Boehme’s mouth were disgusting. He’s never been to our site, he’s never interacted with our residents, and, he clearly hasn’t seen the horrors that happen when someone else is homeless.”
During Tuesday night’s meeting, councillors heard from more than 20 delegations in total, with several community representatives speaking out against the various proposals to maintain or permanently relocate the sleeping cabins. A number of residents expressed concern over having the cabins relocated to their neighbourhood, which included representatives near Rodden Park and Rideau Marina— the two locations staff had identified as possible long-term homes for the project.
Of all the delegations, Wilson was most concerned with members of the so-called “Kingston Community Research Group,” who spoke out against the continuation of the project. According to Wilson, presentations from group members contained “false information.” She remarked, “They use their PhDs as credentials, but they didn’t actually provide accurate information. They’ve never met our residents. Their ‘research report’ is not a research report… It has to be vetted by an ethics committee; they didn’t even put their name to the report.”
While several delegations on Tuesday night claimed to represent this research group, including Victoria Robinson, it is unclear where or how members of the group ascertained the information included in their report. Despite questions surrounding the academic integrity of the research group’s findings, Wilson said it was clear that members of council put significant weight into the comments of these alleged “experts.”
“They presented information that was misleading and the councillors knew it and accepted it anyway,” she claimed.
During his remarks, Councillor Boehme noted, “None of the experts recommended continuing the sleeping sheds program.” However, Wilson argued that academics should not be considered the only true “experts” in the field.
“The experts aren’t the ones with PhDs who are parading around pretending to know what they’re talking about. The experts are the people who are suffering in the cold, and they know what’s best for them,” she said.
Wilson added she wished more councillors would have taken to heart the testimonies of actual sleeping cabin residents. “We had residents at the meeting standing at the microphone, and councillors didn’t even bother to ask them questions. They didn’t want to hear the truth,” she reasoned.
Ron Durston was one of the sleeping cabin residents who attended the City Council meeting on Tuesday night. In an interview with Kingstonist later in the week, Durston explained that he left the meeting early after he grew tired of the rhetoric he was hearing from community members and City Councillors.
“I didn’t stay for the whole thing. I sat there and listened to the professional people who were doing research… I swear, some of the crap that was coming out of [Victoria Robinson’s] mouth, about the cabins and what it’s doing for people. I couldn’t believe what was coming out of her mouth,” he said, referring to the first delegation representing the Kingston Community Research Group.
As delegates and councillors spoke about issues related to safety, accessibility, fire risk, and the cabins’ impact on the neighbouring community, among others, Durston said it felt like representatives had already made their minds up before the meeting began: “I’d say it was set out to be going that way because nobody wants to deal with it. In order to shut things down, you’ve got to make it sound worse than it really is.”
Durston explained that he didn’t initially plan to take one of the sleeping cabins, aiming to ensure that others with more critical needs would have access to shelter. However, he noted that once the winter weather arrived, the cabins provided an ideal alternative to living in his car or on the streets.
“I [first thought] ‘I’m going to stay here until the winter’s over,’ and then I kind of ended up staying a little longer than I was going to. It was a lot better than staying in my van, not knowing if I was going to wake up the next morning,” he said.
Despite the small nature of the cabins, Durston noted they contain the essentials for residents to feel safe and secure.
“I’m happy with what I’ve got in the cabin. I don’t have very much, but it doesn’t matter to me because it’s a roof over my head. I can keep warm in the winter and I was given an air conditioner in the summer… It really disappoints me that they would think that these are nothing but sheds that they wouldn’t even keep their dog in,” he remarked.
When asked what he would like to say to those who voted to end the program, Durston urged councillors to see things from the residents’ perspectives.
“I would ask them to give up their lifestyle for one whole month. Come down to our level, take off their clean suits and go without food for a while, go without heat for a while, go without [air conditioning], and see what it’s like being on the street,” he said.
“Eventually, what’s going to happen is society is going to go down and they’re going to be one of us… and they’re going to be looking for help.”
During Tuesday’s council meeting, members had four different options to choose from regarding the future of the sleeping cabin program. Wilson said the option to move the cabins to Rideau Marina in the city’s east end would have made the most sense for everyone involved.
“We should have gone to Rideau Marina, that should have been a no-brainer. There’s nothing wrong with that site. It’s a great site, and it hits all of our needs,” she explained.
The Rideau Marina property first emerged as a potential site for the sleeping cabins back in 2022, when property owner Homestead Land Holdings offered to lease the site to the City for $1 and provide an additional $750,000 in funding for the project. During Tuesday’s meeting, residents pointed to a steep driveway, with a 14 per cent grade, as one of several reasons the marina was not a suitable location for the cabins.
Rodden Park in Portsmouth District was another potential location, but residents near that site took issue with the fact the cabins would be located in close proximity to a public park and surrounding homes. If neither permanent location was a suitable option for councillors, Wilson said she hoped representatives would support the option to continue transferring the cabins between Portsmouth Olympic Harbour and Centre 70, as the City had done for the last two years.
Wilson said, “I thought, worst case scenario, they’re going to bounce this back and forth until we find another site. We’ve given City staff over 40 places that we felt were acceptable, but none of them made the list. I’m not really sure why.”
As councillors voted to wind down the sleeping cabin program, City staff are supposed to work with the team at OLS to come up with a transition plan to move residents to other supportive housing options in the city. However, Wilson explained she has her doubts over how successful that transition will be, given what she described as a lack of support from the City toward cabin residents.
“Our residents are supposed to be given a Housing First Case Manager. City staff would not allow our staff to train as Housing First Case Managers, so we’re dependent on case managers from Home Base Housing and the Salvation Army… Some of our residents have been with us for a long time with no case managers, and we’ve seen it take over 18 months to get a case manager,” she alleged.
“I don’t know what the transition plan will look like from the City, we just know we’ll be fighting tooth and nail for residents to make sure they don’t end up in the streets.”
Since Tuesday’s meeting, Wilson said she’s received an outpouring of support from members of the community as well as people connected to sleeping cabin projects in other municipalities: “I’ve been overwhelmed with messages from people saying, ‘What the heck?’ And people from outside the city as well who we’ve been consulting with to help them build their communities. [As well as] people who have had success building sleeping cabins.”
As for what he hopes to see happen in the future, Durston advised that officials should spend less time worrying about the financial implications of the program and more time focusing on the needs of some of the city’s most vulnerable people.
“Stop worrying about how much it’s going to cost because you can’t put a price on a person’s life, no matter how [troubled] they are,” he said.
It remains to be seen what will happen to the 17 individuals currently residing in the cabins, or the 300-plus people who had been on a waitlist for one of the cabin spaces. When the program was first approved back in October of 2021, there were 195 individuals on the City of Kingston By-Name List of people experiencing homelessness. In the two years since the program began, that number has climbed to 531.
It is also unknown what will happen with the cabins as the program “winds down.”