Sleeping cabins for Kingston's homeless fall short, critics say

·5 min read
The 10 sleeping cabins are set to be moved by May 17. (CBC/Michelle Allan - image credit)
The 10 sleeping cabins are set to be moved by May 17. (CBC/Michelle Allan - image credit)

The City of Kingston has an expensive storage problem — what to do with the 10 tiny "sleeping cabins" used to house about a dozen people experiencing homelessness through a single winter season.

The 10 beige little shacks — which together cost $185,000 to build, and another $72,000 ($1,800 per unit per month) to run from January through April — are slated for removal from their temporary site at a local marina by mid-May.

According to an interim report released on Tuesday, the city reached out to a "wide variety of community partners" in looking for a new site for the cabins, which do not have bathrooms or running water, but so far, no takers.

'They're playing with our lives'

Barry Shea, one of the 10 residents of the cabins, says the city's uncertainty is frustrating.

"Starting all these cabins up the way they did and then taking them away ... that's something I don't understand," said Shea, a 57-year-old retired PSW. "They're playing with our lives."

As a wheelchair user, Shea said traditional shelters haven't been accessible to him. He worries that if the sleeping cabins project ends, he could end up back on the street.

CBC/Michelle Allan
CBC/Michelle Allan

He credits the cabins with saving his life. "I lost 10 friends on the street this winter ... I almost died from the cold."

Shea said he doesn't understand why there aren't any permanent solutions on the table.

Critics of the pilot project, which was run by a non-profit group called Our Livable Solutions, say it's bad use of tax dollars and donations, and that the money could have been better spent on shelter beds or permanent housing.

"We're basically paying a market rent for these cabins," said Coun. Peter Stroud, who had voted against the project from the beginning. "Why wouldn't we just house them in apartments at that point?"

Project touted as innovative solution

The project received approval from Kingston city council in October and the cabins were unveiled three months later at Portsmouth Olympic Harbour to great fanfare.

By mid-January, residents had moved into the cabins.

At the time, it was touted as an innovative solution to the city's chronic homeless problem.

Council budgeted $407,000 for the program, and a local woman later donated an additional $100,000 to United Way to be used toward the cost of the city's purchase of the cabins.

The city has approximately $250,000 left over from the project.

Those remaining funds will be used to help former cabin tenants through the transition, which includes motel options, according to the interim report.

Keeping the cabins at the Portsmouth Olympic Harbour is not an option because the Canadian Olympic-training regatta Kingston (CORK) needs the venue for its annual summer sailing festival.

The brainchild behind Our Livable Solutions, Chrystal Wilson, said she is concerned with the possibility that participants could end up back on the street.

"We've been able to stabilize people who have otherwise not engaged in traditional supportive housing," she told council on Tuesday. "They would end up sliding backwards when they leave."

Stroud was one of the five city councillors who voted against the project. He said while supports for people experiencing homelessness are greatly needed, he felt the tiny cabins project was destined to fail.

"We sort of just took the offer. It was the only offer we had to say yes or no," he said, adding he felt it was unwise to fund something that lasted only four months.

"We need more socially assisted housing and it needs to be larger scale than a few cabins," said Stroud. "We need to all work together for permanent better solutions."

Mixed reviews for cabins

The cabins drew mixed reviews from Kingston's homeless population, advocates and experts alike.

The limited space and capacity of each cabin also meant only about 10 individuals were housed at a time.

Others point to safety issues as another drawback.

"We're essentially endorsing inadequate housing solutions for people who are deeply marginalized in our communities," said Carrie Anne Marshall, director of Western University's social justice and mental health research lab, who also conducts research on homelessness in the Kingston area.

WATCH | Sleeping cabins are not proper use of funding, critic says

"There's a reason why we have laws around what conditions need to be provided in a housing unit," Marshall said, referring to the project's exemption from aspects of Ontario's building code.

Marshall said that despite the good intentions behind sleeping cabin programs, she is concerned about their safety and efficacy. Buildings without plumbing under 10 square metres are typically exempt from Ontario's building code.

"For $407,000, the City of Kingston could have provided rent supplements of $500 per month for 67 to 68 individuals for a one year period, as opposed to temporary housing and supports for 10 people for 3.5 months."

Not just about money

Kingston's housing administrator said it's not just about the money.

"There's a lot of barriers for individuals who are homeless or have been chronically homeless," said Joanne Borris. "That sadly doesn't make it as easy as it might be for you and I to go out and chat with a landlord and get an apartment and then be able to maintain and keep that apartment."

One of the 13 different people who stayed in the cabins now has permanent housing and one has found paid employment, according to Borris.

WATCH | Cabins provide 'months' of stability for the homeless

She said the program has been useful even though the majority of participants have not yet found stable jobs or accommodations.

"This is a community environment for these individuals where they're gaining life skills and supports as they move [through their] journey towards housing," said Borris, adding the program also helped participants prepare for employment.

"We've had a lot of individuals volunteering … so it's not always paid work for many individuals."

The city is keeping the cabins at their current site until May 17 in the hopes that will buy some time to find a permanent location.

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