A Better Tent City (ABTC) was originally created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to support the unsheltered population during unprecedented times. Ron Doyle, former owner of LOT42, left a legacy of community service by providing the space for unsheltered populations in Kitchener Waterloo who were not able to use the shelter system.
Due to provincial restrictions, LOT42 was no longer operational as an event space, so Doyle and his friend Jeff Willmer collaborated to create a new use for the space— the pilot program, ABTC.
ABTC is a concept with an anti-oppressive, post-structuralist framework based in empowerment and strengths-based philosophy.
It is a community of people who are not traditionally housed but use their own means of creating a personal space within the facility with the ability to use the resources at their disposal and most importantly at their own discretion. They have access to communal washrooms, laundry facilities, electricity, internet and healthcare practitioners.
ABTC is more than an organization—it is a philosophy that breaks down the traditional structures of a typical organization, a peer-led leadership initiative rather than a body of administrators governing specific ideologies and policies.
“It was really a small team of people that got this together and it has matured a bit, but we still don’t call it an organization, we don’t have a board of directors or any structure to it,” Willmer said.
“The leadership group… [is] a collective; there’s sort of members from different organizations that provide leadership but I think … we’ve resisted forming an organization so far,” he said.
Willmer said that since the original launch in April 2021, 50 people now have more stability in their lives. The residents have been able to address other aspects of their lives when they have a stable place to call home.
“There are specific outcomes that are really quite heartwarming. We have got people who are on a methadone drug treatment program and their addictions are being managed,” Willmer said.
“We’ve had three people completely overcome their addiction and now we have residents who say this is the longest that they stayed out of the emergency ward,” he said.
“We have residents that are reconnecting with family.”
Even with the positive aspects of ABTC and the growth of their community, the original home at LOT42 has been sold, therefore, ABTC will have to relocate to another location.
“Our founder, Ron Doyle, died earlier this year, and he was arranging to get his affairs in order when he realized that the end might be coming soon,”Willmer said.
“He had the property in the process of being sold, and the new owner is not interested in being the landlord for ABTC.”
Although many of the residents have experienced significant personal growth, Willmer spoke about the obstacles that ABTC has faced. He said that both the setbacks and the progress have helped ABTC reclaim their founding mission and continue to shape the lives of unsheltered individuals.
“For the most part, [ABTC] was embraced by the broader community—city council, [the] downtown community and other shelter providers realized that we were helping people who were hard to help, and that they couldn’t help. We didn’t need to work hard to overcome the stigma,” he said.
Willmer says relocating has reignited the challenges facing them.
“This is a project that everybody likes but nobody wants to own or have… as their neighbour. We still have some hurdles to overcome in terms of community acceptance in the new location,” Willmer said.
Willmer has used this opportunity in the spirit of growth and improvement by giving ABTC a new journey funded by the Hamilton Diocese. The new location of ABTC will be located in a rural area equipped with farm land in order to grow food. Willmer speaks to the ways in which this challenge is something that will improve the lives of the residents.
“I think there was a need to revamp [ABTC]. If we could have stayed at LOT42, we would have stayed,” Willmer said.
Besides the relocation of ABTC, the collective not only wants to improve on a structural level but also improve the lives of the residents. Willmer explains that ABTC seeks to provide a foundation for the residents for self-growth and discovery with the help of the staff and volunteers.
“I think our hopes are that they realize that other people care for them, that they are valuable and that we aren’t giving up on them—the fact we do have hopes for them,” Willmer said.
“I think that is a message that starts to get through to the residents. Only after time when they spend more time with the volunteers and start to realize that, while many people in their lives may have given up on them,” he said.