A Better Tent City houses 50 people but volunteers say they need more cash to keep it going

A Better Tent City is a tiny home community in Kitchener, Ont. that has been considered by people in other communities as a good way to help people experiencing homelessness.

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

“We’re writing grants constantly,” volunteer Laura Hamilton told Region of Waterloo councillors this week at a committee meeting. “It’s exhausting. Everybody’s writing grants right now. We’re doing the best we can.”

A Better Tent City is located on land owned by both the city and Waterloo Region District School Board on Ardelt Avenue. It’s largely run by volunteers with only a handful of staff members to help the 50 people who live there. 

Since it was started in 2020, other communities have looked to 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 was first getting off the ground in early 2020, but no further funding since then.

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

As well, the United Way, The Food Bank of Waterloo Region and The Community Foundation have supported their efforts.

But all of this just keep them afloat, Hamilton told council. They need more help from staff.

“We’ve become home for those for whom no other home has, or could be, provided and we need your support to help our residents to reclaim their dignity, find hope and begin to imagine a different future,” Hamilton said.

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Funding gap

Volunteers for A Better Tent City were at this week’s meeting because they had applied to be part of a regional housing program but had been turned down.

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 essentially, it allocates just over $3.1 million to nine services that aim to prevent and end homelessness.

A Better Tent City consists of a small row of 50 insulated cabins for people in Kitchener. The tiny home community was started in 2020. Since it was started, six people have moved out of their tiny home into more permanent housing. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

The program received 19 proposals from 15 different organizations.

A Better Tent City was turned down for the program and Jeff Willmer, chair of the group, said they weren’t told why, only that they didn’t meet enough criteria. A meeting with regional staff to go over their application is set to take place later this month.

“I’m sure you don’t want to see our project fail anymore than we do,” Willmer told regional councillors.

During the meeting, councillors were asked to approve the report and, with it, the nine projects staff recommended funding for.

Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic wanted to amend that motion to add that the region fund A Better Tent City the amount of $236,390 in 2024 and 2025.

He noted the cost to the region to run the hybrid shelter on Erbs Road — also made up of small cabins for 50 people — was far higher. Staff confirmed it cost $2.8 million to set up the hybrid shelter on Erbs Road and costs approximately $2.1 million annually to run.

WATCH | Nadine Green and Jeff Willmer talk about the work they do at A Better Tent City:

WR Changemakers: Nadine Green and Jeff Willmer

Featured VideoNadine Green and Jeff Willmer of A Better Tent City are being recognized for their work supporting people experiencing homelessness in Waterloo region.

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

“My presumption, Councillor Vrbanovic, is that they would be on the street or be forced to find alternative shelter through the formal system or through informal networks,” Sweeney responded.

Vrbanovic said that’s exactly why he felt the region needed to give A Better Tent City the money they need.

“I can’t see a world where we wouldn’t fund them,” Vrbanovic said.

Moving out is goal for many

Volunteer Marion Thomson Howell said in the three-and-a-half years the tiny home community has operated, six people have moved out.

That may have been part of the problem, Wilmot Mayor Natasha Salonen said. She raised concerns A Better Tent City has become home to people and is not a shelter or transitional housing in the way the region might like it to be.

“The model of A Better Tent City isn’t necessarily to move people through to further housing. When I visited, that was kind of what I was told, at least by residents, that this was their community,” Salonen said.

But Hamilton and Thomson Howell said it’s hard to get people into housing when they don’t have staff members on site to connect people to the services. The region and Lutherwood have representatives on site once a week, but the people living at A Better Tent City can easily miss them.

A woman stands for a portrait in a kitchen
A Better Tent City board member Laura Hamilton told councillors they’re doing the best they can to move people into more permanent housing, but they need more staff to help them do that. More staff means they need more money, and the group has asked the region to help fund the tiny home community. (James Chaarani / CBC)

The six people who have left were “delighted to move on,” Hamilton said.

“Yes, it is a community, it’s built on relationships, but there are a lot of people there 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,” she said.

To get people ready to move out on their own, though, takes work, Hamilton said. It involves counselling and some holding of hands through the various steps.

“And we’ve been able to do that for a few people and it’s the most wonderful thing in the world. But we know there’s more people that want that.”

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

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

WATCH | The tiny homes making a massive difference:

The tiny homes making a massive difference

Featured VideoIn Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., the problem of chronic homelessness is being addressed by a community of tiny homes. The housing project, called A Better Tent City, is funded by private donations.

‘There are 96 people who are invisible to you’

Thomson Howell also told councillors their support goes beyond the 50 people who live there.

“One year ago today, we had approximately 65 people who came around on a regular basis looking for support. As of Thursday of last week, we had 96 and that number grows daily,” she said.

“There are 96 people who are invisible to you, but if in fact we cannot continue, they will no longer be invisible,” she added.

“This is the success A Better Tent City has been, that we have been able to look after the people that [Hamilton] just described for almost three years. The problem with that is we’ve also made this problem invisible to the community.”

The motion that included Vrbanovic’s amendment to fund A Better Tent City was deferred until the next budget meeting on Nov. 22.

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