The Better Tent City has 50 people, but volunteers say they need more money to keep it going

A Better Tent City is a tiny home community in Kitchener, Ontario. Which people in other communities saw as a good way to help people experiencing homelessness.

But the volunteers who run it say they need more money or they may have to close.

“We’re constantly writing grants,” volunteer Laura Hamilton told Waterloo Region councilors this week at a committee meeting. “It’s stressful. Everyone is writing grants now. We’re doing the best we can.”

Better Tent City is located on land owned by both the city and the Waterloo Region School Board on Ardelt Street. It is run largely by volunteers with a small staff to 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 this is the type of action they should take including Windsor, Hamilton, London and Winnipeg.

The group received $150,000 from Waterloo Region when it first began its work in early 2020, but no more has been funded since.

Hamilton told councilors they run the community using funding they get from people who live there and who sign their housing allowance from Ontario Works or Ontario Disability, which amounts to about $300,000 a year, and they receive about $80,000 in donations from the community.

The United Way, Waterloo Region Food Bank and the Community Foundation also supported their efforts.

“But all of this keeps them afloat,” Hamilton told the council. They need more help from the staff.

“We have become a home for those for whom no other home exists or can be provided, and we need your support to help our residents regain their dignity, find hope and begin to envision a different future,” Hamilton said.

Funding gap

Volunteers for a Better Tent City were present at this week’s meeting because they applied to be part of a regional housing program but were rejected.

The name of the program is bureaucratic — the report referred to it as the 2023 Housing Stability System Fee for Service Request and Proposal Response Protocol — but it essentially allocates just over $3.1 million to nine services aimed at preventing and ending homelessness.

A thin road with a row of small houses on each side.
The best tent city consists of a small row of 50 insulated cabins for people in Kitchener. The tiny house community began in 2020. Since its inception, six people have moved out of their tiny house and into more sustainable housing. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

The program received 19 proposals from 15 different organizations.

A Better Tent City was rejected, and Jeff Wilmer, the group’s president, said they weren’t told why, just that they didn’t meet enough standards. A meeting with regional staff to discuss their requests is scheduled for later this month.

“I’m sure you don’t want to see our project fail more than we are doing,” Wilmer told regional council members.

During the meeting, council members were asked to approve the report, with staff recommending funding for the nine projects.

Kitchener Mayor Perry Vrbanovic wanted to amend that proposal to add that the district fund a better tent city with $236,390 in 2024 and 2025.

He noted that the cost to the district of managing the hybrid shelter on Earps Road — which also consists of small cabins that hold 50 people — was much higher. Staff confirmed that the hybrid shelter on Earps Road cost $2.8 million to construct, and its operating cost is about $2.1 million annually.

watched Nadine Green and Jeff Wilmer talk about the work they do on A Better Tent City:

WR Changemakers: Nadine Green and Jeff Wilmer

Outstanding videoNadine Green and Jeff Wilmer of A Better Tent City have been honored for their work supporting people experiencing homelessness in Waterloo Region.

Vrbanovic also asked Peter Sweeney, the area’s community services commissioner, what would happen to people at A Better Tent City if it had to close.

“My assumption, Councilor Vrbanovic, is that they will be on the street or have to seek alternative shelter through the formal system or through informal networks,” Sweeney replied.

Vrbanovic said that’s exactly why he feels the district needs to give Better Tent City the money it needs.

“I can’t see a world where we don’t fund these projects,” Vrbanovic said.

Getting out is a goal for many

Volunteer Marion Thompson Howell said that in the three-and-a-half years the tiny home community has been operating, six people have left.

Wilmot Mayor Natasha Salonen said that may have been part of the problem. She expressed concerns that the Better Tent City would become a home for people and not a shelter or transitional housing the way the area might want.

“The ‘Better Tent City’ model is not necessarily about moving people into more housing,” Salonen said. “And when I visited, that’s what I was told, at least by residents, that this is their community.”

But Hamilton and Thompson-Howell said it’s difficult to convince people to stay when they don’t have staff on site to connect people with services. Area and Lutherwood representatives are on site once a week, but people who live in A Better Tent City can easily miss them.

Woman poses for a photo in the kitchen
Better Tent City board member Laura Hamilton told council members they are doing their best to move people into more sustainable housing, but they need more staff to help them do so. More staff means they need more money, and the group has asked the district to help fund the tiny house community. (James Charani/CBC)

Hamilton said the six people who left were “delighted to be moving on.”

“Yes, it’s a community, it’s built on relationships, 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 do it.” “Get out,” she said.

Getting people ready to go out on their own takes work, Hamilton said. It involves counseling and some hand-holding through the different steps.

“We’ve been able to do this for a few people and it’s the coolest thing in the world. But we know there are more people who want it.”

Hamilton added that they have tried to get people from A Better Tent City into other housing services programs including the area’s hybrid shelter on Erbs Road or shelters run by organizations including House of Friendship and OneRoof, but haven’t had much luck.

“We have nowhere to send people,” she said.

watched Tiny homes make a huge difference:

Tiny homes make a huge difference

Outstanding videoIn Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, chronic homelessness is being addressed through a community of tiny homes. The housing project, called A Better Tent City, is being funded by private donations.

“There are 96 people who are invisible to you.”

Thompson-Howell also told council members their support goes beyond the 50 people who live there.

“One year ago, we had about 65 people coming on a regular basis looking for support. As of Thursday last week, we had 96 people and that number is growing every day,” she said.

“There are 96 people who are invisible to you, but if we can’t actually keep going, they won’t be invisible anymore,” she added.

“That’s the success of Better Tent City, where we’ve been able to care for the people that (Hamilton) just described for about three years. The problem with that is that we’ve also made that problem invisible to the community.”

The proposal, which included Vrbanovic’s amendment to fund a “better tent city,” was postponed until the next budget meeting on Nov. 22.

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