James Gowland

Sleeping Outside the Shelter

This is the second winter since the Out of the Cold program in Waterloo Region folded, and it has taken approximately the same amount of time to have “bunkies” approved as optional temporary shelters for people who sleep rough on WR’s streets. Those who might once have slept in churches through the OOTC program can now choose to spend the night in one of The Working Centre’s converted shipping containers.

“The reality is that every night in large cities, there are 10 or 20 people that are sleeping roughly, for different reasons,” says Joe Mancini. “Some choose the street, some don’t.”

Mancini is incredibly hard to get a hold of, but by the time the co-founder of The Working Center returned my call, I could see that his loyalty is to the many people his organization serves.

The project’s original roadblock was a zoning rule that no accessory building should be used for human habitation, and here Mancini says the City of Kitchener played a large role in the bunkie project’s fruition. The City passed a temporary zoning change for a three year term, with the option for renewing for another three years.

“If there are no issues or complaints, I couldn’t forsee why we wouldn’t renew it,” says Craig Dumart, who is a junior planner at the City. “It’s definitely a unique project.”

Money was also an issue. Since this temporary by-law was considered a zone change, it cost $5,000 for the City of Kitchener to consider and then enact it. The housing division of Waterloo Region Community Services paid this fee, as part of their commitment to finding alternative and creative ways to address homelessness, and the Region provided $28,000 to purchase and retrofit the bunkies.

Fire safety requirements also challenged the project. After insulating the units, Mancini was informed that he would have to remove that same material temporarily to meet other safety needs before he could continue in the building process.

“Both levels of government were supportive in passing a temporary bylaw,” said Mancini.

When shelters are full, the Region will pay for hotel rooms to cover overflow, but Mancini says that “certain individuals do not want to be part of the shelter system.”

“That’s not part of what they do.”

During the summer, tents are popular. In winter, some individuals try to find a warm vestibule, doorway or stairwell.

There are many different reasons why people “sleep rough,” according to Mancini.

“I wouldnt want to box people in,” he says, noting that individuals with addiction and/or mental health issues may have limited choices.

So far, one shipping container has been cut in half, and each section renovated to provide basic necessities. Each unit, roughly 10 by eight feet, has one small window and a bed. Running water and toilets are close by inside St. Johns Kitchen, where there will be staff on hand 24 hours a day.

“We had wider hopes at the beginning of this process,” says Mancini. “Something more livable as an entity.”

Mancini suggests that the slow progression with these units has less to do with money and more to do with the “enforcing of middle class standards.”

“[Zoning rules are] very structured to limit the creativity of families, individuals or organizations from creating secondary units,” he says, arguing the current rules are meant to prevent a situation where you “have this neighbour whose allowing someone to live in their backyard.”

The Working Centre’s outreach worker Joe Bauman says certain types of individuals will especially benefit from this project. The hope is that this can be a starting point for individuals looking to eventually secure long term housing.

“The exciting thing for me is that there is quite a bit of flexibility, so we’re hoping that people can move into them and those barriers into normal housing won’t be as stark,” says Bauman.

Mancini thinks these units could become stepping stones toward steady and structured housing down the road, allowing new beginnings for “fiercely independant and resilient people.” At least there will be a few more people out of the cold.