Sleeping cabins for the homeless in Kingston fall short, critics say

The city of Kingston has an expensive storage problem – what to do with the 10 small “sleeping cabins” that were used to house about a dozen people who were homeless during a single winter season.

The 10 beige tiny shacks — which together cost $185,000 to build, and another $72,000 ($1,800 per unit per month) to run from January to April — will be removed from their temporary location at a local marina in mid-May.

According to an interim report released Tuesday, the city has reached out to a “wide variety of community partners” in seeking a new location for the cabins, which have no bathrooms or running water, but so far no buyers.

‘They play with our lives’

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

“Starting up all these shacks like they did and then taking them down… that’s something I don’t understand,” said Shea, a 57-year-old retired PSW. “They are playing with our lives.”

As a wheelchair user, Shea said traditional shelters were inaccessible to him. He fears that if the sleeping cabin project ends, he could end up on the streets again.

Barry Shea, 57, says getting a sleeper cabin saved his life. (CBC/Michelle Allan)

He credits the cabins with saving his life. “I lost 10 friends on the street this winter…I almost died of the cold.”

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

Critics of the pilot project, which was led by a nonprofit called Our Livable Solutions, say it is a poor use of taxpayers’ money and donations, and that the money could have been better spent on shelters or permanent housing.

“We’re basically paying a market rent for these cabins,” Coun said. Peter Stroud, who had voted against the project from the start. “Why not 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 with much fanfare in Portsmouth’s Olympic harbour, three months later.

In mid-January, the residents had moved into the huts.

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

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

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

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

Keeping the huts in Portsmouth’s Olympic harbor isn’t an option as the Canadian Olympic Training Regatta Kingston (CORK) needs the venue for its annual summer sailing festival.

The brainchild behind Our Livable Solutions, Chrystal Wilson, says he is concerned about the possibility of participants ending up on the streets again.

“We have managed to stabilize people who otherwise would not have engaged in traditional supportive housing,” she told the city council on Tuesday. “They would eventually slide backwards if they left.”

Stroud was one of five city councilors who voted against the project. He said that while support for the homeless is desperately needed, he believed the small shack project was doomed to fail.

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

“We need more social housing and it has to be bigger than a few cabins,” Stroud said. “We all need to work together for permanently better solutions.”

Mixed reviews for cabins

The cabins received mixed reviews from Kingston’s homeless population, lawyers and experts.

The limited space and capacity of each cabin also meant that only about 10 people could be accommodated at a time.

Others point to safety issues as another drawback.

“We essentially support inadequate housing solutions for people who are deeply marginalized in our communities,” said Carrie Anne Marshall, director of Western University’s research lab for social justice and mental health, who also researches homelessness in the Kingston area.

VIEW | Sleeper cabins are not a good use of funding, says critic

Huts offer homeless people ‘months’ of stability

Joanne Borris of the City of Kingston says the sleeper cabins offer some stability to people who are homeless, as officials try to help people with different needs and challenges. 0:52

“There’s a reason we have laws about the conditions to be put in a housing unit,” Marshall said, referring to the project’s exemption from aspects of the Ontario building code.

Marshall said that despite the good intentions behind sleeper programs, she is concerned about their safety and efficacy. Buildings with no plumbing of less than 10 square meters are generally exempt from Ontario building regulations.

“For $407,000, the City of Kingston could have provided housing benefits of $500 per month to 67 to 68 people for a period of one year, as opposed to temporary housing and support for 10 people for 3.5 months.”

Not just about money

The Kingston housing manager said it’s not just about the money.

“There are many barriers for people who are homeless or have been chronically homeless,” says Joanne Borris. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it as easy as it could be for you and I to go talk to a landlord and get an apartment and then be able to maintain and maintain that apartment.”

One of the 13 different people who stayed in the huts now has permanent housing and one has found paid work, Borris said.

VIEW | Huts offer homeless people ‘months’ of stability

Sleeper cabins are not a good use of funding, says critic

Professor and researcher Carrie Anne Marshall says money should go toward a permanent solution to help the homeless, not an experimental solution that circumvents key housing laws. 0:48

She said the program was helpful, although the majority of participants have not yet found stable jobs or housing.

“This is a community environment for these individuals where they receive life skills and support as they move [through their] journey to housing,” said Borris, adding that the program also helped participants prepare for employment.

“We’ve had a lot of volunteers… so it’s not always paid work for a lot of people.”

The city will keep the huts in their current location until May 17 in the hopes that this will buy some time to find a permanent location.

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