Outcroppings of small, shed-like shelters have been popping up in large U.S. cities for the better part of a decade but are relatively new to Canada.
Tiny home villages, as they’re called, have become an increasingly common way to address the immediate shelter needs of unhoused populations, and are positioned as a humane bridge between homelessness and permanent housing.
There are a number of companies creating the structures that form these villages and the company bringing roughly half of the 120-unit supply to Kelowna, B.C., is Pallet Shelter, based out of Washington.
The company put its first tiny village into action in 2018 in Tacoma, Wash. Since then, it’s built 121 villages in North America, and Kelowna is its first significant foray into the Canadian market.
“The pallet shelter is sort of that interim stepping stone of ‘we, as a society, should not let the streets be the waiting room for this problem,'” said Sammi Anderson, the vice-president of regulatory and legal operations.
“You need to get under a roof and you need to be warm and you need some help getting back on your feet and then the governments with whom we work and the smart people who are dedicated to this cause with whom we work think about post-pallet housing.”
That, she said, is in many cases something more permanent that hopefully comes with some kind of integrated services to help people in their recovery. It’s a process that challenges existing thinking.
“The narrative here in the United States was along the lines of ‘essentially because people are declining services that are available to them, they must be choosing to be homeless — this must be their personal choice,'” Anderson said.
“You can imagine in America, it’s kind of an attractive idea, right? It’s individualist and it’s also convenient for the rest of society to think that.”
More evidence was challenging that notion, however, and those behind the tiny village mainly found that what people didn’t want was the services being foisted on them, or they were conversely in need of other services that weren’t available.
“In the United States at that time, the model was a congregate shelter model where you can come in and you can stay overnight and sleep on a cot close to other folks,” Anderson said.
“If you’ve got a felony on your record, you can’t get in, you’ll be screened out.”
Women, she said, also didn’t tend to enjoy that model and didn’t want to expose their children to the vagaries of shelter life. Those with animals were similarly deterred by the rules in place.
“So we discovered it wasn’t that they want to be homeless, it’s that they don’t want what’s on offer,” Anderson said.
“So that started the journey again, with this sort of lived experience core, helping us understand what would be useful for the end user that began the journey of designing individualized, dignified individualized shelters.”
They have been tweaked based on the market and user feedback over time but they have always come with a locking door, a window that closes, a bed and a place to put your stuff, charge your phone and hang some shelves.
“They’re very basic structures, but they have heat, they have air conditioning and it’s yours,” Anderson said. “It’s yours and you’re safe and you can get your legs under you.”
The units coming to Kelowna are called the S2 Sleeper model and are 70 square feet. There will also be a laundry unit and some bathrooms on site, but not in the units.
They’re coming at a cost of roughly $20,900, plus a couple of hundred more for the beds inside, apiece.
The 60 tiny homes will be situated on a parcel of city-owned land along Crowley Avenue in the city’s north end, a largely an industrial area.
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The site is across the Okanagan Rail Trail and the existing city-designated outdoor sheltering site, often referred to as ‘Tent City.’
“We see great outcomes,” Anderson said. “You can have people move in and get stabilized and if there’s a permanent housing supply available to them, they can move on in three to six months, because sometimes you just kind of need a launching pad and some help.”
The homes that will be built in Kelowna are from a workforce that has walked a similar path to what the units’ new residents have and that’s something the owner of the company is particularly proud of.
“We have redemption stories on a daily basis…. There’s a park here in Seattle that over the course of the pandemic became notorious for encampments and rampant drug use,” Anderson said.
“We have an individual working here who, just a few years ago, was living in a tent in that park and shooting heroin and today they’re clean, sober, employed in our supply chain team.”
In Duncan, one of the early B.C. adopters of the tiny home solution, has a similar take on the situation.
“People are becoming employed there. They’re stabilizing once they’re on site,” Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples said of their village.
“People are accessing health care for the first time, like really serious health care, like hip replacements and things that you can’t get if you don’t have an address, and you don’t have a place to go after your surgery. People are accessing recovery programs and detox.”
Staples said the tiny home village has also benefited the neighbourhood as a whole.
“The calls for service from the RCMP went down 18 per cent in the first quarter after the site was open,” she said.
“People are reporting feeling that their neighbourhood has calmed down…. They feel more comfortable in their neighbourhood because that site was empty for a long time prior to that and there was a lot of activity at that site.”
In Kelowna, Mayor Tom Dyas said he believes the tiny home community will provide warmth and shelter to 60 people currently on the streets, along with a number of amenities and services on site.
“They could look at obtaining mental health services, obtain assistance with regards to their addictions, have a place that would maybe now look at establishing allowing them to obtain employment,” Dyas told Global News.
BC Housing said a service provider has not yet been selected but whichever one it is will have staff on site 24-7.
A second location for a similar development is in the works but neither BC Housing nor the city has said where or when it will be created.
— with files from Klaudia Van Emmerik