A Better Tent City is a small housing community in Kitchener, Ontario. This has been seen by people in other communities as a good way to help the homeless.
But the volunteers who run it say they need more money or they could be forced to close.
“We are constantly writing grants,” volunteer Laura Hamilton told Waterloo Region councilors this week at a committee meeting. “It’s exhausting. Everyone has writing grants right now. We’re doing the best we can.”
A Better Tent City is located on land owned by the city and the Region of Waterloo District School Board on Ardelt Avenue. It is largely run by volunteers and only a handful of staff help the 50 people who live there.
Since it began in 2020, other communities have looked at what A Better Tent City has done to consider whether it’s the kind of action they should take, including Windsor, Hamilton, London and Winnipeg.
The group received $150,000 from the Region of Waterloo when it first took off in early 2020, but has received no further funding since.
Hamilton told councilors that they run the community using funds they get from the people who live there and who pass on their housing subsidy from Ontario Works or Ontario Disability, which is about $300,000 a year, and receive about $80,000 in donations. of the community.
Additionally, United Way, the Region of Waterloo Food Bank and the Community Foundation have supported their efforts.
But all of this keeps them afloat, Hamilton told the council. They need more help from staff.
“We have become home to those for whom no other home has and could not be provided, and we need your support to help our residents regain their dignity, find hope and begin to imagine a different future,” Hamilton said.
A Better Tent City volunteers were at this week’s meeting because they had applied to be part of a regional housing program but had been rejected.
The name of the program is bureaucratic (the report refers to it as the 2023 Housing Stability System Fee for Proposal and Request for Service Response Protocol) but, essentially, it allocates just over $3.1 million to nine services that aim to prevent and end homelessness.
The program received 19 proposals from 15 different organizations.
A Better Tent City was rejected for the program, and Jeff Willmer, the group’s president, said they weren’t told why, just that they didn’t meet enough criteria. A meeting with regional staff will be held later this month to review your request.
“I’m sure you don’t want our project to fail as much as we do,” Willmer told regional councilors.
During the meeting, councilors were asked to approve the report and, with it, the nine projects for which staff recommended funding.
Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic wanted to amend that motion to add that the region fund A Better Tent City in the amount of $236,390 in 2024 and 2025.
He noted that the cost to the region of running the hybrid shelter on Erbs Road, which also consists of small 50-person cabins, was much higher. Staff confirmed it cost $2.8 million to install the hybrid shelter on Erbs Road and costs approximately $2.1 million a year to operate.
SEE | Nadine Green and Jeff Willmer talk about the work they do on A Better Tent City:
Vrbanovic also asked Peter Sweeney, the region’s community services commissioner, what would happen to the people of A Better Tent City if it were forced to close.
“My assumption, Councilor Vrbanovic, is that they would be on the street or forced to seek alternative shelter through the formal system or informal networks,” Sweeney responded.
Vrbanovic said that’s exactly why he felt the region needed to give A Better Tent City the money it needed.
“I don’t see a world where we don’t fund them,” Vrbanovic said.
Moving is the goal of many
Volunteer Marion Thomson Howell said in the three and a half years the tiny house community has been in operation, six people have moved in.
That may have been part of the problem, Wilmot Mayor Natasha Salonen said. She expressed concern that A Better Tent City has become a home for people and is not a shelter or transitional housing like the region would like it to be.
“The Better Tent City model is not necessarily moving people into other housing. When I visited, that’s pretty much what I was told, at least by the residents, that this was their community,” Salonen said .
But Hamilton and Thomson Howell said it’s difficult to get people into housing when they don’t have staff on site to connect them to services. The region and Lutherwood have representatives on site once a week, but people who live in A Better Tent City can easily miss them.
The six people who left were “delighted to move on,” Hamilton said.
“Yes, it’s a community, it’s relationship-based, but there are a lot of people who will say, ‘I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life,’ but they don’t know how to get out,” he said.
However, preparing people to move on their own takes work, Hamilton said. It involves counseling and some hand-holding through the various steps.
“And we’ve been able to do that for some people and it’s the most wonderful thing in the world. But we know there are more people who want that.”
Hamilton added that they have tried to get people from A Better Tent City to participate in other housing services programs, including the region’s hybrid shelter on Erbs Road or shelter spaces run by organizations like House of Friendship and OneRoof, but they have not had good luck.
“We have nowhere to send people,” he said.
SEE | Tiny houses make a big difference:
‘There are 96 people who are invisible to you’
Thomson Howell also told councilors his support goes beyond the 50 people who live there.
“A year ago today, we had approximately 65 people coming in regularly seeking support. As of Thursday of last week, we had 96 and that number is growing daily,” he said.
“There are 96 people who are invisible to you, but if we really can’t continue, they will no longer be invisible,” he added.
“This is the success that A Better Tent City has had, that we have been able to take care of the people who [Hamilton] Just described for almost three years. The problem with this is that we have also made it invisible to the community.”
The motion that included Vrbanovic’s amendment to fund A Better Tent City was tabled until the next budget meeting on Nov. 22.