Sleeping cabins project to come to an end after council vote

After two years and occupying two different locations in Kingston, the sleeping cabins project led by Our Livable Solutions and supported by the City of Kingston will come to an end in spring of 2024.

To date the cabins have been moved between Portsmouth Olympic Harbour and Centre 70, with the City of Kingston seeking a permanent home and considering either Rodden Park or Rideau Marina as locations for a term of at least three years.

Rideau Marina has been noted as the preferred option given Homestead Land Holdings' offer to lease the land to the city for free for three years and provide funding of up to $750,000, although some residents questioned the motive for their offer after their previous project proposal on the site was shot down in 2020.

On Tuesday council considered those two location options along with continuing to transfer the cabins between the two previous sites, as well as the final option of ending the program altogether.

Multiple delegates at the meeting were from Kingston Community Research Group, a group of concerned citizens with a variety of educational backgrounds who came together to research the project.

Victoria Robinson, from the group, pointed to the two serious fires at the sleeping cabins over a nine month span, saying compared to the rest of the city those numbers point towards the increased fire risk at the cabin community - as much as 135 times more likely to see a fire.

"The sleeping cabin project is an indisputable fire risk," Robinson said.

"What council decides to do with these sleeping cabins becomes a matter of possible liability and legal litigation for the city should there be another fire."

Our Livable Solutions Director Chrystal Wilson said the evidence points towards one of those fires being started by arson, though the lack of cameras leaves them without the ability to prove that.

Council heard from over 20 delegations at Tuesday's meeting, with the majority coming from the neighbourhoods surrounding Rodden Park or Rideau Marina, and most expressing their concerns about the cabins being moved to those locations.

Jennifer Ingham, one of the delegates at the meeting, said the proposal for Rodden Park would have very little to no separation between the cabin community and residential homes, likening it to "suddenly having a motel next door where there used to be a park".

The pilot was initially launched in 2021 for five months, at a cost of $507,000 with a portion of up front costs going to the construction of the cabins.

Council extended the project in 2022 with $250,000 in capital funding and $394,000 in operating funding, also committing $336,000 in annual funding beginning in 2023.

A report from an October city council meeting stipulates that sleeping cabins are not meant to be a long term solution, and are typically located outside of residential neighbourhoods.

Residents adjacent to both proposed permanent locations expressed concerns about the close proximity to neighbourhoods, and the supposed drug use that would come with the cabins and their residents.

One of the residents at the sleeping cabins, Marsha Wiggins, said that rhetoric is being overblown and people should visit the cabins to see that.

"Before they stereotype and they're trying to say that we have drug paraphernalia, that we do drugs outside," Wiggins said.

"Come visit, come see for yourself that it's safe there. I have watched little kids there and I am not embarrassed about, or ashamed about being around the residents. There's none of that there, we don't want to be around that."

Wiggins said the ability to be farther away from drug use is one of the appeals of the cabins.

The cabins were not without support at Tuesday's meeting including Marguerite Van Die, who said the city's homeless have gone largely unheard in this process.

She says many of the fears being presented were heard at the two previous locations, and proved to be generally unfounded.

"It really makes a difference to engage with the residents," Van Die said.

"Many are parents and grandparents just like you, some could be your sons and daughters for it doesn't take much today to end up homeless. At each of the temporary locations of the cabins residents initially expressed fear that the cabins would disturb and downgrade their neighbourhoods, but in each case criticism turned into acquiescence and in many cases support."

One of the final delegations was Our Livable Solutions' Director Chrystal Wilson who has spearheaded the sleeping cabins program and said there's been wonderful successes in the program.

She said while many remarked on only three residents transitioning to other housing as a failure, given the lack of viable options available it really should be seen as a success.

"You all know we're in a housing crisis, to blame us for three people getting housed, you should be applauding us for getting three people housed," Wilson said.

"We need you to build that good housing, it just doesn't exist otherwise."

Critics of the program say ultimately, the estimated amount spent on the program of roughly $2 million over two years could have had a greater impact if directed to other housing programs.

Councillor Boehme tabled a motion to end the program, saying just that in his explanation.

"City staff have indicated that this is one of the, if not the most expensive solutions there is," Boehme said.

"The cost versus benefit analysis is clear here, these resources and dollars can be better spent funding true transitional housing supports for people."

The motion to work with Our Livable Solutions to wind down the sleeping cabins project this spring passed 10-2, with councillors Tozzo and Chaves voting in dissent.

The city says it will transition remaining residents to other housing options, and a plan to do so will be presented to council by March 2024.

Owen Fullerton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, YGK News