When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Waterloo Region, the message was clear: stay home if you can. For those experiencing homelessness, this message wasn’t as clear. If you don’t have a home to stay in, and if self-isolating or going into quarantine is near impossible in a shelter, where are you supposed to go?

Waterloo Region’s shelter system isn’t fit for everyone, even in the absence of a pandemic. There’s a lot of reasons why unsheltered folks may not want to enter the shelter system, Elizabeth Clarke, CEO of the YWCA Kitchener-Waterloo explained. Clarke went on to list several reasons including large crowds, safety concerns, fear of theft or violence, service restrictions, those in heterosexual relationships would have to split up, pets are prohibited and some folks want to stay away from substances that can be found in the Region’s shelters. 

Our shelters provide a blanket experience meant to serve the majority of a population in need — unfortunately, that blanket doesn’t cover everyone. 

In January, CTV Kitchener reported that a downtown Kitchener corner store owner, Nadine Green, was being evicted after running the store for seven years. She had been offering people experiencing homelessness, who did not want to stay in shelters, a place to hang out and sleep. Green’s property management company said that the building didn’t support residential use and that she was behind in rent, giving them reason to change her locks. Green rejected the accusation that she was behind on payments. 

One of the folks who was staying at the Duke Corner Store said it was a more friendly environment than the shelter, CTV reported. 

It was that story that sparked Ron Doyle’s interest in how private business owners can help those that cannot use our Region’s traditional shelter system. Doyle owns 41 Ardelt Place, otherwise known as LOT42. Doyle described LOT42 as a “poor attempt at a convention centre” and a “total failure,” prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, but the pandemic really cemented the fact that his business would not grow in 2020. Feeling pessimistic, Doyle currently has LOT42 listed for sale. 

Using Green’s corner store as inspiration, Doyle and his friend Jeff Willmer, who has a background in city planning for the City of Kitchener, decided to use the space to pilot a concept the two had been discussing for a few months: A Better Tent City. The huge space was useless to Doyle, as his business had halted. Until he finds a suitable buyer, LOT42, the place that once hosted the massive True North conference, would just be an empty building and parking lot.  

“All tent cities are trespassers — I’m saying “yes, in my backyard, come on over”,” Doyle said. 

Tent cities pop up all over the Region. Unsheltered folks set up temporary shelters like tents, almost always on private or municipal properties when they are unable to enter the shelter system. Eventually, bylaw or police tell them to move along. If these folks don’t feel like the shelter system is a suitable option, where they’re supposed to move along to is completely ambiguous. 

“The unfortunate reality of a tent city is that they’re almost always trespassing on either municipal property or private land. When they get found out, bylaw enforcement or police come in and tell them, move along, you’re trespassing, you’re not welcome here … they don’t have an answer when people say, well where do you expect us to go? There isn’t a legitimate place to go,” Willmer said. 

“That begs the question as to why it is [that] in Waterloo Region, the municipal governments are calling on police to break up a homeless encampment, but there really is no answer [on] where we expect them to go.”

The idea of A Better Tent City takes away the fear of being moved along. There would be a space that is stable, where these folks are welcome to stay. There would be washrooms, showers, laundry and access to medical services. 

“We had a willing host property owner and we could provide some kind of shelter … something more solid than a tent that could help you get through winter and a place where you can safely store your belongings,” Willmer said. 

Initially, folks were tenting inside the building at LOT42, but more recently Doyle and his team have acquired — through community fundraising — small cabins to provide a sturdier structure with locks on the doors. They have access to the inside of LOT42, where they can use the washrooms, electricity and internet. They also acquired a mobile home equipped with laundry and showers. Milk crates are filled with soil to start a garden and former corner store owner Green, who is working extensively with this project, helps folks get to appointments or other services around Kitchener. 

Through a partnership with the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region, fundraising initiatives have helped create a safe community for the nearly 40 people who live there. The 12 cabins cost approximately $35,000 total (with insulation and beds) and the shower and laundry facility cost about $30,000 to install. This was a one-time cost, without taking into consideration the cost of maintenance or utilities. 

Ultimately, the people living at LOT42 have created a community or neighbourhood just like any other neighbourhood in KW. While Doyle and Willmer check-in consistently, there’s no real sense of authority. Green, who also lives in one of the cabins, is responsible for making sure everything is running smoothly while providing compassion and care to her neighbours. 

“These communities tend to be supportive communities. Safety in numbers, I guess. Some people look out for each other and trust each other and can support each other. It’s actually a fairly high-functioning cooperative,” Willmer said.

In B.C-based writer Travis Lupick’s book Fighting For Space, he tells the story of Liz Evans, owner of the Portland Hotel in 1991. The Portland Hotel was in the downtown Eastside of Vancouver, an area known for substance abuse and homelessness. Evans, a trained nurse, took people off the streets and housed them in the Portland Hotel, also known as “the hotel of last resort.”

In a survey she conducted in her first year, she found that her tenants had lived, on average, 11 different places during the previous year. She investigated some of the reasons why these people were forced to leave — the main determinants were mental health and addiction. She decided to loosen the rules in the hotel, and instead, cater to those who lived there. She accommodated the space to fit them, not the other way around. She told them they would not be evicted. 

She told Lupick about a resident who had a compulsion to smash glass. He had been evicted several times due to broken windows. So, Evans removed all the glass from his room and replaced his windows with plexiglass. 

“The primary goal was not to fix people, but to give them a space to live in the greatest degree of comfort that the Portland [Hotel] could create …” Lupick wrote in his book. 

“When she gave tenants a home that was truly theirs and removed the intense feelings of stress that they had previously felt from the constant threat of homelessness, their mental health improved, sometimes significantly so.”

The shelters in Waterloo Region are all currently set up to support group-sleeping environments. Because of budgets, space and the general infrastructure of these buildings, that’s what makes the most sense. COVID-19 of course turned that on its head, as piling 60 people in one room to sleep at night posed a public health risk. Several of the shelters in KW now have folks sleeping in the Radisson Hotel, the YWCA and House of Friendship included. 

“One of the things that our [COVID-19] experience has shown us is that these congregate living settings really aren’t safe and we need to give people the ability to self-isolate,” Clarke said. 

“[Sleeping in hotels] does allow people to maintain physical distancing for their health, but I think for their mental health, too, it gives them the chance to get away and not have other people in their faces all the time.”

Think back to some of the reasons as to why some folks choose not to sleep in shelters. Nearly all those reasons can be solved if group sleeping is taken away. Fear of theft or violence while sleeping would subdue if you had your own room. Staying away from substances you’re trying to avoid is more feasible. If shelters had private rooms, heterosexual couples could spend the night together, ideally. 

On June 18, The Kitchener Waterloo Community Foundation (KWCF) hosted a webinar titled “Do More Good Dialogues” about affordable housing. John Neufeld, executive director of House of Friendship, was one of the three people on the panel.

In the discussion, Neufeld talked about House of Friendship’s experience transitioning to the Radisson. 

“What we learned in [COVID-19] is something rather profound … at the beginning of [COVID-19], our whole shelter system had to dramatically shift here in the Region of Waterloo. Our shelter did not have the appropriate distancing … we were in fear of a breakout, so we were very fortunate that a hotel opened up its doors. We were able to move our whole shelter in less than 24 hours into the hotel where we still are. We’ve doubled our numbers,” Neufeld said on the panel. 

He explained that traditionally, the shelter system in Waterloo Region provides folks in need with a bed, a meal, and then can hopefully place them in affordable housing. This system, Neufeld said, has its flaws. He explained that since these new private sleeping arrangements have been in effect, more folks are ready to move into housing, with a greater rate of success for them to stay in housing.  

“We simply can’t take someone who’s chronically homeless … and throw them into affordable housing and hope for the best. I think what we’ve learned is that if you actually want affordable housing to be successful — yes we need to build more stock and have it available — but if we can do a few things initially to set people up for success, with a bit more care, that would be successful.”

Neufeld shared a story from one of the folks who previously stayed at House of Friendship but is now staying at the Radisson. This resident wrote: “I feel like for the first time in a long time, I’m ready to tackle my addiction. Because of the conditions of the Radisson, I’ve been able to see a healthcare provider for the first time in over five years. I’m sleeping, really sleeping. I’m starting to feel like me.”

Clarke knows that there are issues with group sleeping arrangements in the Region’s shelters, but changes like these can’t just happen overnight. 

“We’ve talked about the issue of single rooms and I think that’s something that’s coming — something other than this congregate living that we’ve been doing … that’s a big infrastructure issue,” she said.

At the Better Tent City, there’s still that sense of congregate living, with shared laundry, washroom and shower facilities. The cabins are close together, but the folks living there still have the privacy and personal security they need when they turn in for the night. It’s amazing what a good night’s sleep can do for your nervous system when you’re not worried about your physical safety or all your belongings being stolen.

While Clarke is watching this project with wide eyes, she believes it will only be successful if the group stays small. 

“I think what we would need — my personal suspicion — is a number of [sanctioned tent cities] in different communities to keep the numbers small so that people can sort of [create] rules and be accountable to each other. That’s one of the reasons why [LOT42] is going so well,” Clarke said. 

“Unless there’s a place that’s solely for that purpose, there’s always going to be a shifting around of people.”

So with LOT42 being really the only sanctioned place for folks to live like this in Waterloo Region, the next step would be to find other property owners like Doyle. 

“Our concept was: let’s develop a better tent city to show that it can be done, and then the hope is that other private property owners [or development companies] will say, I have land sitting there, I’m not going to use it for the next three years, I’ll make it available. We haven’t found anybody yet ready to take the plunge,” Willmer said. 

When Doyle was initially asked about LOT42, his answer was full of pessimism and regret. He had visions for the space that never came to light. Money was lost; dreams never came into fruition. He wished the community had accepted it. 

“I built it for the community,” he said, solemnly. 

Maybe LOT42 isn’t being used by the community in the way he originally intended, but the way Doyle said he built it for the community, in a way that suggested failure, has stuck with me throughout the writing process of this story. 

He built it for the community, and now an entire group of people call this space home. Without thinking twice about it, without fear of legal repercussions or responsibility, LOT42 offers a stable space to folks who have always been told to move along. 

“If you open your mind, just enough to let the light come in, like Leonard Cohen says,” Doyle said, “there’s a crack in the system, that’s how the light gets in and if [the people] who are running our society would let a little light in, we can fix everybody’s problem.”

With files from Melissa Embury