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Cabins approved for Kingston’s homeless; would it work in the Sault?

Kingston advocate calls it step in the right direction; Sault City Councillor calls it ‘half measure’
20211024-SleepingCabin photo supplied
A Kingston man at the entrance of a sleeping cabin. Kingston City Council has approved a sleeping cabin program to build up to 80 such structures for Kingston’s homeless. Photo supplied

Chrystal Wilson, a Kingston, Ont. housing advocate, has a vision for a camp of micro homes, commonly known as sleeping cabins, to be established as shelter for that city’s homeless population for at least the coming winter.  

“There was a warming centre in Kingston but when the pandemic started (in March 2020) they closed the warming centre and everybody got tossed out into the cold,” Wilson said in a phone interview. 

Wilson, as director of a group known as Our Livable Solutions, has approached Kingston City Council twice regarding the establishment of a group of cabins on a patch of city property or donated property to help the homeless, even in the short term, while working on a long term solution to homelessness.

“A lot of the people we support aren’t allowed in the shelter system,” Wilson said.

“They don’t thrive there very well. They struggle to be in congregate settings, and so they think that if they have their own space where they can control their door, and they decide when they come in and out, they would be better off.”

“A lot of people feel the current shelter system is very patronizing. There’s a gentleman that’s on our team right now, he’s 63, and he gets very frustrated when young people who are workers in the shelter system are telling him what to do and when to do it. He said ‘if I can have my own space, control my door and comings and goings I’d have more independence and I’d have more dignity.’”

Wilson first appeared before Kingston’s city council in August as part of a delegation, then again Oct. 19 seeking land from the city.

“We did expect (during the second appearance before council) to find out about land options and we weren’t presented with any land options and that was very disappointing because we’ve been waiting for that,” Wilson said.

However, the city of Kingston approved $150,000 to get a cabin community started after Wilson’s second appearance before council last week.

It is not yet known where the cabin community will be located.

“That’s where we’re stuck,” Wilson said.

“What we would like is a cluster of these sleeping cabins together in a location, like a camp, with a support building that has facilities, washrooms and showers.”

Housing advocates envision such a camp could have laundry and kitchen facilities and other services, such as skills development, meal programming and addiction and mental health supports.

The units, Wilson said, cost about $6,300 each. 

“Our micro homes are small. But it’s bigger than some of the bedrooms people are put in. We have to remember context. We know people who are paying $650 to sleep on a couch...a lot of people are in the woods or in doorways of buildings,” Wilson said.

The cabins proposed in Kingston would be 12 feet by nine feet in size and include heating, lighting, smoke detection, internet access and other everyday essential items.

Wilson said one cabin is already in place for an individual after a Kingston homeowner purchased it and erected it in the backyard earlier this month, the cabin’s resident welcome to use the homeowner’s bathroom.

That particular cabin cost $18,000, the money raised through a GoFundMe campaign, Wilson said.

“We have two models on trailers that we move around the city for people to see...they use some models for sleeping cabins for mining companies in northern BC.”

Wilson said some contractors have expressed willingness to build cabins, adding a church group has also expressed support.

Wilson said she has approached business people to see if they would be willing to purchase a property on which to house people in cabins, free to sell the property after a period of time.

Housing advocates have called on Kingston’s city council to provide land as part of a three-year pilot project.

Key obstacles to a cabin community include the fact the cabins are too small to qualify as living units under the Ontario Building Code, and that none of Kingston’s municipally owned properties are zoned for such a community.

Those obstacles aside, are micro homes, or sleeping cabins, an option for Sault Ste. Marie?  

Ward 2 Councillor Luke Dufour of Sault Ste. Marie, who serves as District of Sault Ste. Marie Social Services Administration Board (DSSMSSAB) chair, isn’t sold on the cabins as an alternative for Sault Ste. Marie’s homeless.

“I think this is one of those ideas that looks great on a Facebook page and then when you actually go to try to implement it you start to realize how many problems there are with it,” Dufour said.

“It’s definitely not something that I’d ever recommend bringing into Sault Ste. Marie...it’s not a solution, it’s a half measure in the absence of what should be the solution.”

“The biggest issue with the cabins is that you can’t build structures that don’t comply with the Ontario Building Code. They have no heat, they have no sanitation. If you set up a whole community of these, where are people going to use the bathroom, where are people going to bathe? Where are people going to get a shower?”

“It’s not how cities are supposed to operate,” Dufour said.

“That’s not safe. It’s not sanitary. They’re not being built to any kind of fire code. If people are sleeping in there in the winter, it doesn’t matter how well it’s insulated, you need a heat source, it needs a source of combustion or electricity and you can’t safely or legally attach any kind of electrical infrastructure to something like that, that has no foundation and little structural stability.”

For the cabins to be legally erected, changes would have to be made to the Ontario Building Code, which, Dufour said, “is not necessarily a bad idea.”

However, Dufour, who runs a construction company, stated “if the government’s going to start looking at alternative building codes, then it should look at alternative building codes for renovations of existing housing stock, not for building these half measures.”

Dufour spoke of what the DSSMSSAB is doing to address the growth of homelessness in Sault Ste. Marie, stating the board has taken several actions in the last 18 months to overhaul the homelessness system in the community.

Dufour said those actions include:

  • Pay raises for municipal homeless shelter employees such as St. Vincent Place (for men) and Pauline’s Place (for youth, women and families) to attract additional qualified mental health workers and social workers  
  • A renovation of the former Steelton Senior Citizens Centre for Pauline’s Place transition rooms before tenants can hopefully move on to affordable housing
  • More soon-to-open women’s units due to open in the next couple of weeks near Pauline’s Place, and budgeting for 22 men’s spaces, doctor’s offices, Indian Friendship Centre programming and EMS (at the former Sacred Heart School) for September 2022

“In the meantime we need another facility because homelessness keeps getting worse and worse and we’re trying to prevent tent cities and cabins in Sault Ste. Marie, so we’re going to be opening a new low barrier shelter that’s going to be at a temporary location, and we’ll be opening that probably in the next four weeks,” Dufour said.

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) will be staffing that facility, the DSSMSSAB to hire security and perform renovations (washrooms and showers) to that building, Dufour said.

Dufour did not disclose where that facility will be, deferring to Mike Nadeau, DSSMSSAB CEO on that question.

Nadeau was not available for comment Friday.

Dufour said officials will soon know how many homeless people there are in Sault Ste. Marie, social workers and community partners fanning out through the community to get a count and names of individuals, aiming to get people placed into transition rooms or suitable apartments.

“We want to know everyone’s name and we want to have a plan for everyone to get housing (though Dufour said a part of it depends on provincial funding).”