A coalition of anti-poverty advocates hopes local officials support a plan to build pint-sized cabins for homeless people at the site of a shuttered high school in downtown Hamilton.
The Hamilton Alliance for Tiny Shelters (HATS) aims to use part of the former Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School property for a temporary community meant to bridge gaps between housing and the street.
The project is not a solution for homelessness, but a safer stopgap than tents and stairwells, said Tom Cooper, a member of the HATS steering committee.
“This is an idea that progressive communities are very intrigued by and see it as an opportunity to keep people in a dignified situation while more permanent solutions are found.”
On Monday night, public school board trustees agreed to direct staff to work with city officials and HATS to explore the temporary use of the site for the project.
Next, alliance representatives plan to make their pitch to city councillors on Thursday in anticipation of zoning arrangements that may be required.
To start, HATS hopes to erect 10-12 tiny cabins on the eight-acre Macdonald property, which is hemmed in between Bay Street North, Hess Street North, York Boulevard and Cannon Street West.
Manufactured locally, the insulated cabins would be eight-by-10-feet and outfitted with lighting, heat and a fire extinguisher. Each one would have a small bar fridge and microwave.
The plan is to have bathrooms, showers and laundry facilities in a shipping container or trailer. The project also envisions a kitchen where residents and volunteers could cook meals.
There would be regular garbage pickup and participants would aim to keep the area clear of trash, said Cooper, who’s also the director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction.
“It’s our plan to make this a community and ensure that people take pride in the homes and living together.”
Organizers said prospective tenants would be identified by medical professionals and agencies that work with homeless people.
Cooper said the cabins aren’t meant to serve as short-term stays like emergency shelters but act as bridges to permanent housing. “People are going to get keys to their cabins.”
HATS pegs the capital and operational costs of the first phase of 1 to 12 cabins at roughly $200,000. For an additional $100,000, the community would expand to 20.
“We’re already spending a lot of money on solutions that don’t seem to be working long term,” said Julia Kollek, another project organizer.
“But these are all future plans. What we need is something fast and cheap now.”
This winter, shelters are at or near capacity, struggling with COVID-19 outbreaks and experiencing staffing shortages and burnout.
Some people who live in city parks don’t stay in shelters for a variety of reasons, including struggles with addiction or mental illness. Others don’t want to separate from partners or pets.
Encampments, which have proliferated across Hamilton during the pandemic, have become a source of polarizing debate, particularly over the enforcement of a bylaw that prohibits tents in parks.
Some housing advocates and police have clashed with police, while divisions on council have formed over approaches to people in tents.
“That’s exactly what we want to end,” said Ted McMeekin, a former Liberal cabinet minister who’s working on the project.
Encampment residents tend to foster a community among themselves, McMeekin added.
“We’d like to see that value affirmed and encouraged in a setting that’s safer and more secure.”
A Better Tent City
McMeekin points to A Better Tent City, a 50-resident community of tiny cabins in Kitchener as an example of what could be achieved in Hamilton.
Established nearly two years ago, the community has moved more than once but is now located on a city-owned road allowance and public school board property.
“For the residents, this has transformed their lives,” co-founder and board member Jeff Wilmer told The Spectator.
A Better Tent City has one full-time site co-ordinator who lives at the site, but the initiative relies on a variety of collaborating agencies, Willmer noted.
Monthly operating costs of roughly $20,000 are mostly covered by shelter allowances drawn from residents’ social assistance, he said. Fundraising and grants fill the gaps.
“The residents, once it’s their house, they make it their own,” Willmer said.
Rather than rules, residents agree to abide by “commitments,” he said.
“To boil it down, it really is be respectful toward each other and toward your neighbours for your whole community.”
A Better Tent City, which recognizes some residents use drugs, takes a harm-reduction approach, Willmer said.
“We realized that that’s why some people are still out in the cold and so we don’t have that kind of a barrier.”
A methadone treatment program is delivered on-site to roughly a third of the residents. A doctor visits once a week while a pharmacist is there daily. A mobile health bus is there twice a week.
From tents to cabins?
In Hamilton, the number of people living in tents has fluctuated between 80 and 140 people, city officials say. More recently, amid the cold weather, 30 to 35 people have been known to be outside.
Last month, at her small encampment off Queenston Avenue, Murielle Servais said the idea of a sanctioned site of tiny homes made sense.
With the right policies, it could reduce robbery concerns and prevent garbage from piling outside, she said.
“People that come in cannot bring in their big carts of garbage because there would be rules.”
Trustees had initially hoped to establish a community hub at the Sir John A. Macdonald site that was to be anchored in a new elementary school.
But late last year, the board learned the province had rejected — for a second time — its application for funding to move forward with the hub, which led to the initiative’s demise.
Sir John A. Macdonald was closed in 2019, following an accommodation review. Early in the pandemic, the city cleared an encampment that had formed on the grounds of the vacant building.
Kollek told trustees Monday that HAT would be ready to move the tiny cabins should the board need the property for future plans. In the meantime, they’re searching for other potential sites, she said.
In addition to the Roundtable, the alliance counts the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton, the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, Indwell and the First Unitarian Church of Hamilton among its core organizers.
But a host of organizations, including other churches, social-service agencies and health-care providers, have also expressed interest in offering their support for the project.
“It’s just been an amazing project that’s moving so fast,” said Kollek, who noted organizers have met with city staff ahead of Thursday’s presentation to the emergency and community services committee.
Hamilton police, meanwhile, says the HAT project “falls in line” with the service’s various crisis-response teams, including Social Navigator, which pairs police officers and paramedics.
“The tiny homes project is a creative idea and we look forward to playing a role in the conversation,” spokesperson Jackie Penman wrote in an email.
Teviah Moro is a reporter at The Spectator. email@example.com