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'It’s way less lonely': Inside an Ontario program where the homeless now have homes

·6 min read

KITCHENER, Ont. — Nadine Green is worried about David Fitzpatrick. She hasn't seen him in days and hopes fentanyl hasn't killed him.

As she scans a sprawling site in an industrial area of Kitchener, Ont., on a warm October day, Fitzpatrick wheels in on his bicycle.

"David!" Green yells out. "You're home! Thank God."

Home is a tiny wood cabin alongside 38 others in a lot where the city dumps its snow in the winter.

This is "A Better Tent City," a citizen-led project where 50 people who previously lived on the streets get an independent home, meals, and freedom from restrictions that often exist at homeless shelters.

Green, who runs the site, offered Fitzpatrick a spot after meeting him last year as he sat on a sidewalk in the rain.

He says his drug use and erratic behaviour led his wife to kick him out of their home. He still lives through bouts of depression and misses his three young sons. But at the cluster of cabins in Kitchener, the 32-year-old doesn't feel as broken.

"If I ever have a breakdown moment and I'm all contrarian and crying, someone will always sit and talk with me, and tell me I’m good," he says, stifling tears. "It's way less lonely."

Fitzpatrick and others at the project live in cabins that are powered and heated. The structures have a bed, a side table and some storage space.

There's a trailer nearby with showers and laundry machines. There are porta-potties. Under a large white tent, a makeshift kitchen, fridges, microwave, tables and couches await. Meals are brought in, and steak is sometimes cooked on the barbecue. There's a store, offering fruit, vegetables and non-perishables. There are even free cigarettes.

Many of the cabins have been modified by their residents. Some have small porches, others are painted bright colours. Music pipes through speakers in some homes.

Twice a week, a bus with nurses and social workers rolls in to offer health-care services. Some who live here have abscesses from needle use that need draining, others need dialysis.

About two-thirds of the residents use drugs. Fentanyl and opioids dominate. Some shoot heroin, others use meth. Many in the community say they live with some form of mental illness.

Green, 53, lives at the site but also brings food to those still on the streets. If a cabin at the site becomes available – some residents move on and a few are asked to leave over problematic behaviour – she offers it to someone who might benefit.

Several dozen residents say they are happier here than they've been in a long time.

"Here you're a person," says Richard King, 55, as classical music plays on his sound system. He's mostly off fentanyl after starting on methadone – a pharmacist comes by daily as part of a harm-reduction program.

"It has helped big time," he says.

At that moment, a resident yells incoherently at the top of his lungs. No one pays him any attention. A few minutes later he's quiet.

"We let people live their lives," says Green. "I love them all, even the bad ones, and we are hugging the wicked out of them."

Green says she learned to help the less fortunate while growing up in Jamaica, where her father worked with the homeless. Many here think of her as mom.

"She's both the king and queen," Alvin O'Dea, 49, says with a wink. He also lives at the site and helps Green run it.

"This community is a major advancement," he says. "Like Star Trek, we took a giant leap in Kitchener."

A Better Tent City was the brainchild of Ron Doyle, a wealthy industrialist, and Jeff Willmer, the former chief administrative officer for Kitchener.

When the pandemic hit and many shelters closed or drastically reduced operations, Doyle and Willmer recognized a need for a safe space where homeless individuals could live.

They set up tents at a large event space owned by Doyle in April 2020 and A Better Tent City was born.

A month later, while Doyle was driving in a nearby rural area, he saw small cabins for sale on the side of the road. He stopped and ordered a dozen for A Better Tent City. Later he'd buy more.

Doyle died in March. When his estate sold off the lot hosting A Better Tent City, the project had to find a new home. This time, local government got involved.

In June, with a forklift and flatbed trucks, the entire community was moved to the snow dump site.

Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic says he's become a big proponent of the project.

"This has, without question, brought a level of respect and dignity, and additional support to a resident group that is typically more challenging to serve," he says.

Permanent housing for the site's residents remains the ultimate goal, but in the meantime, "this is a much more humane and dignified option," he says.

Other municipalities have shown interest in the model.

Councillors in Kingston, Ont., recently approved a plan to accept proposals on a "sleeping cabin" program inspired by A Better Tent City. And Willmer says he's spoken with groups interested in starting similar programs in Peterborough, Ont., and Woodstock, Ont.

A Better Tent City is a non-profit. Its operating costs are paid for by its residents because it receives a portion of their monthly Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support program payments – about $400 to $500 – that would typically go to shelters they might use.

Community donations cover wages for Green and O'Dea, as well as capital costs. The wages of the site superintendent are paid by St. Mary's Parish.

The project has largely been accepted by Kitchener residents – there have been some complaints, but the mayor says those occur no matter where the homeless live.

Waterloo Region police Chief Bryan Larkin says his force has worked with those running the program to avoid unnecessary clashes with site residents.

Police say there have been 81 calls for service since mid-June, although 34 of those were dropped 911 calls. Theft is an issue, Larkin says, but most of the 13 charges laid were for breaching court or police orders.

"When you look at the criminal perspective, it's fairly minor," he says.

"What this has done is it's actually reduced the demand, for example, for overdose calls and public washroom calls, it's reduced the demand on trespassing complaints, it's reduced the demand on general disorder complaints."

The project will soon have to pick up and move once more, since the city needs its snow dumping site back. The local council and the Region of Waterloo have committed to helping the community find a new site and a location is being finalized.

No matter where it ends up though, for Green, the supportive environment at the project is what makes it special.

"It was just a parking lot," she says, "but we made something beautiful."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 24, 2021.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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