Research & Data from H.A.T.S.
A special thank you to
Bill Johnston of Hamilton
Alliance for Tiny Shelters
for sharing all of this
valuable information with us! The following is used with permission and there is much more, including interviews and surveys with the unhoused community, etc.
Canadian Definition of Homelessness
“Homelessness describes the situation of an individual, family or community without stable, safe, permanent, appropriate housing, or the immediate prospect, means and ability of acquiring it. It is the result of systemic or societal barriers, a lack of affordable and appropriate housing, the individual/household’s financial, mental, cognitive, behavioural or physical challenges, and/or racism and discrimination. Most people do not choose to be homeless, and the experience is generally negative, unpleasant, unhealthy, unsafe, stressful and distressing. …
“The problem of homelessness and housing exclusion is the outcome of our broken social contract; the failure of society to ensure that adequate systems, funding and supports are in place so that all people, even in crisis situations, have access to housing and the supports they need. The goal of ending homelessness is to ensure housing stability, which means people have a fixed address and housing that is appropriate (affordable, safe, adequately maintained, accessible and suitable in size), and includes required income, services and supports to enhance their well-being and reduce the risk that they will ever become homeless. This means focusing both on prevention and on sustainable exits from homelessness.
“In the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, the definition of homelessness recognizes the overrepresentation of Indigenous Peoples (including First Nations, Inuit, and Métis) amongst Canadian homeless populations resulting from colonization and cultural genocide. The Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada highlights the necessity of considering the historical, experiential, and cultural perspectives of Indigenous Peoples, as well as the ongoing experience of colonization and racism as central to understanding and addressing Indigenous homelessness. In addition, numerous populations, such as youth, women, families, people with mental health and/ or addictions issues, people impacted by violence, seniors, veterans, immigrants, refugees, ethno-racial and racialized people, and members of LGBTQ2S communities experience homelessness due to a unique constellation of circumstances and as such the appropriateness of community responses has to take into account such diversity.”
Indigenous Definition of Homelessness
“Indigenous homelessness is a human condition that describes First Nations, Métis and Inuit individuals, families or communities lacking stable, permanent, appropriate housing, or the immediate prospect, means or ability to acquire such housing. Unlike the common colonialist definition of homelessness, Indigenous homelessness is not defined as lacking a structure of habitation; rather, it is more fully described and understood through a composite lens of Indigenous worldviews. These include: individuals, families and communities isolated from their relationships to land, water, place, family, kin, each other, animals, cultures, languages and identities. Importantly, Indigenous people experiencing these kinds of homelessness cannot culturally, spiritually, emotionally or physically reconnect with their Indigeneity or lost relationships.”
Tiny Cabin Villages
Tiny cabin villages are being increasingly embraced by cities in the United States and, more recently, Canada, as part of a range of tools for dealing with the increasing numbers of people experiencing homelessness, especially those outside of shelters.
There are tiny cabin villages in Kitchener, Duncan, B.C., Victoria, B.C. and Kingston, with 10 to 42 cabins each. London, Ontario ran two cabin villages of 30 each in the winter of 2020-1 and again in 2021-2. Vancouver will launch a tiny cabin village in September. Groups in Woodstock and Peterborough have secured use of properties where they plan to launch tiny cabin villages. There are hundreds of tiny home villages in the United States, going back to at least 2001.
Supported by their city governments
Kitchener’s A Better Tent City began in spring 2020 as a private initiative on private land but has since been supported, partially funded and located on public land. The Woodstock and Peterborough projects have private land on which they plan to create tiny cabin villages. All the other Canadian tiny cabin villages are city-supported, on land owned or arranged by the city, and partially or fully funded by city funds or funds administered by the city (such as pandemic emergency funding).
Canada’s programs primarily responded to three realities:
growing numbers of people not just experiencing homelessness but unsheltered
the additional burden the pandemic imposed on already stretched homelessness systems
the fact that the traditional shelter is not an option for many people—for couples, people with pets, people who want or need more privacy or who face discrimination in shelters, people who fear violence, theft, bedbugs or other communicable diseases in shelters, etc.
Are tiny cabin villages effective?
Yes. At minimum, they save lives. But a number of studies and assessments show they do much more. They allow individuals experiencing homelessness:
to gain some stability, improving their health and wellbeing;
to gain a sense of belonging and some agency from living and participating in a community;
to benefit from various health, housing and other services, often brought to the village;
to become ready to—or to actually—transition to permanent housing, find employment and/or reconnect with family and friends.
Annual assessments in Denver show a broad range of improvements in personal wellbeing and financial health in tiny village residents compared to similar people on the village’s waiting list. Seattle statistics show a higher percentage of people transition to permanent housing from tiny cabin villages than from traditional or even enhanced shelters. London and Kingston have catalogued a range of improvements in their tiny cabin village residents. London, for instance, saw 18 of 29 residents of its 2022 winter tiny cabin village get permanent housing and others were ready to be housed. In its first winter program, London saw 26 residents move to “safe supply” drugs, reducing the risk from street drugs. Surveys show that adjacent neighbourhoods experienced little impact from the villages and police in Denver, Duncan and London reported no increases in crime. Kitchener, London, Kingston, Victoria and Duncan each approved extensions or second phases of their tiny cabin programs and Kingston has just voted to double the number of cabins in use in that city.
Three keys to success: Stability, community and services
Three aspects are seen as crucial to the success tiny cabin villages have achieved:
The stability provided by having a fixed location and your own private space, which in itself produces huge health benefits;
The shared sense of community created by and fostered in the villages; and
the opportunity to get access to needed services, from ID to health care, harm reduction to housing help, education to employment preparation, etc.
Not everyone loves them. Critics of tiny cabin villages see them as inadequate “shacks” that underline rather than challenge the residents’ marginalization, and view the whole idea as a diversion from the real need, which is to raise the money needed to build lots of real, permanent, affordable homes.
Ideas from other tiny cabin villages
The report concludes with information on experiences at other tiny cabin villages on many issues.
Some of the ideas mentioned include:
Gives priority to the full participation of people with lived experience.
Have a diverse panel involved in selecting residents to ensure representation of marginalized groups in the tiny cabin village.
Make the cabins as large as possible and as well insulated as you can, for cold and heat.
Provide indoor gathering space, ideally including a kitchen, and easy access to laundry.
Have residents participate in maintaining the site, and hold regular resident meetings.
Have clear, written expectations for behaviour, including for settling disputes and for discipline including discharge from the tiny cabin village. Resident participation in creating these expectations can boost buy-in.
Once a site is found, get out early to tell neighbours what is coming. Create the first impression. Spell out the evidence from other cities. Lay out the services that will be provided to the residents. Listen to neighbours and try to find ways to accommodate legitimate concerns. Set up a community council and other methods of ongoing, two-way communication.
No one sees tiny cabin villages as a solution to homelessness. But growing numbers of cities are integrating them into their responses to homelessness because they can be created quickly and at a fraction of the capital costs of shelters or housing and because of their demonstrated benefits for people experiencing homelessness. The ultimate goal remains permanently housing the residents, with the supports and community they need to remain housed and integrate into the wider community. Tiny cabin villages have been demonstrated to be effective in preparing their residents to transition to permanent housing if and when affordable units are available for them to move to and funding is available for the supports some of the residents will need to sustain their housing.
Introduction: Tiny cabin communities for people experiencing homelessness
Tiny cabin villages are being increasingly embraced by cities in the United States and, more recently, Canada, as part of a range of tools for dealing with large numbers of people experiencing homelessness, especially those outside of shelters.
Tiny cabin villages for people experiencing homelessness typically have:
Individual cabins for privacy and safety. Cabins are typically insulated, have doors that residents can lock and have electricity and heating but not internal plumbing.
Communal/shared facilities including washrooms/portable toilets, showers, kitchen and gathering spaces, to meet individual needs but also to foster interactions to create a sense of community.
The villages may be seasonal, temporary, pilot project or long-term.
They may be self-managed or managed by a non-profit organization or a mix.
Typical goals include saving lives and reducing the harms of homelessness; providing residents with the stability of a fixed, safe, warm and private shelter; providing connections to health, harm reduction, housing and other services; and providing a stepping stone to more permanent housing.
No one suggests cabin villages are a solution to homelessness. That solution requires greater investments of time and money and improved policies and practices at all three levels of government to:
increase the supply of affordable non-profit, co-operative and for-profit housing units;
prevent the loss of any more affordable non-profit or for-profit units;
enhance lower incomes;
target discrimination and colonialization; and
increase resources for all forms of supports needed to sustain existing and future tenancies and to allow the tenants to thrive and to integrate into their communities.
Purpose of this report
This report looks at the characteristics of the Canadian and some American cabin villages, examines all the assessments of their performance we could find, and attempts to learn lessons from those studies and experiences. The focus is on tiny cabin villages set up to provide emergency or transitional shelter, not the emerging trend to create permanent villages of tiny (but larger) homes with their own bathrooms and kitchens, built as part of planned subdivisions.
There are likely more than 100 of these kinds of cabin villages for people experiencing homelessness in the United States.2 There are or have been five in Canada—first Kitchener, then London and Duncan B.C., Victoria B.C. and, most recently, Kingston. In February 2022, Vancouver approved a two-year pilot project cabin community that is expected to take in residents in September. As of June, citizens’ groups in Woodstock and Peterborough have secured use of private properties on which to create tiny cabin villages and Oxford County Council has given the Woodstock concept approval in principle.
Why Canadian municipal councils support tiny home communities
The general context for all of the Canadian cabin villages has been the surge in homelessness and then the COVID-19 pandemic, which significantly disrupted services to people experiencing homelessness, including reducing the capacity of existing shelters to allow social distancing. But there are other reasons communities supported or initiated cabin villages.
“Vancouver’s current homelessness crisis is a direct result of a historic lack of sufficient investment in supportive and affordable housing, insufficient and inappropriate health supports for people with mental health and addictions, and insufficient income supports for people living in deep poverty. … “Shelters and other emergency measures such as tiny homes are not solutions to homelessness but may, in certain circumstances, provide interim options until longer term housing is built.”
“Despite the significant response to support those experiencing homelessness in 2021, London saw a continued increase in the number of individuals experiencing homelessness including those sleeping unsheltered.”
“Meeting the needs of our most vulnerable citizens requires creative solutions and flexibility. … A Better Tent City … is serving an immediate need for about 40 people in Kitchener who are homeless and cannot be accommodated in the existing shelters, especially at a time when sheltering in place is critical.”
“A lot of the people we support aren’t allowed in the shelter system … They don’t thrive there very well. They struggle to be in congregate settings, and so they think that if they have their own space where they can control their door, and they decide when they come in and out, they would be better off.” “A lot of people feel the current shelter system is very patronizing. There’s a gentleman that’s on our team right now, he’s 63, and he gets very frustrated when young people who are workers in the shelter system are telling him what to do and when to do it. He said ‘if I can have my own space, control my door and comings and goings, I’d have more independence and I’d have more dignity.’”
“When homeless people in Duncan, B.C., were asked two years ago how they’d like to live, they said a small cluster of simple sleeping cabins would be great. That way, they’d have a few others around for some protection but not so many that it would become a chaotic, unregulated camp.”7 “The project is an essential part of the continuum of services for unsheltered people in the Cowichan Valley and represents an important first step in helping people off the streets permanently.”
“The village is part of the City’s ongoing effort, working in partnership with the Province and BC Housing, to deliver more than 220 temporary indoor housing and shelter spaces for people currently living outside to launch them on a pathway to permanent stable housing.”
Catholic Archdiocese of Halifax- Yarmouth
“If we have learned anything in the past 20 months, it is that those who are most vulnerable in our communities need our support now more than ever. Corporal acts of mercy, including sheltering those who go without, are central to our Christian faith and teachings. These are not optional projects – we are called to love ‘not in word or speech, but in truth and action’ (1 John 3:18). … this is how we are called to live the Gospel in our present time and place.”
Assessments of the impact of living in a tiny cabin village
London, Ontario, two sites, winter of 2020-21
London, Ontario has provided detailed statistics from its two winter-only tiny cabin villages.
In the winter of 2020-2021, London operated two sites with cabin-style accommodation with about 60 units. The program was intended to end at the end of the winter, but one site was continued for a few more months to continue the progress 25 individuals were making.
As of April 20, 2021, 75 individuals had been supported at the two sites. The 60 spaces were offered to “chronically homeless individuals with high acuity, who did not, or could not, stay in our traditional shelter system.”
1 person had 406 short-term stays in shelter since January 2018.
1 had 266 short-term stays in shelter since November 2017.
12 people have not been previously successful at staying in shelter for more than one night
11 people experienced stays in shelter for under 10 days
12 people experienced stays in shelter for under 20 days
A report noted:
The tiny cabins “succeeded as, unlike traditional shelter or motels, this design allowed for low barrier sheltering. Individuals had their own secure rooms that they exited to eat, to shower, and to engage; this promoted community development and relationship building amongst the staff and other residents. Many individuals were able to demonstrate stabilization from addiction, mental health, and/or trauma. They built relationships, trusted staff, and community members, connected to health care, and many connected to housing services.”
The report noted successes achieved within a very short time. “Personal, mental, financial, health and housing stability has proven to be a catapult from living unsheltered on the street to housing for some. Some individuals who would otherwise not benefit from the traditional shelter system seem to be excelling in this low barrier setting.” Here were the statistics:
25 people were deferred to more appropriate housing options through the City of London’s Coordinated Access program
5 people had been housed
10 people moved on either by choice or request
46 people were still living at the two sites as of April 8, 2021.
37 people were “paper-ready” (they had ID, a source of income and were ready to sign a lease). The remaining people were partially ready.
23 people were matched to housing support programs
23 people were in consideration for housing units that month
22 people had moved to a safe supply regimen while at the sites
1 resident was COVID positive and was properly isolated with no spread
3 people failed COVID screenings, went to the monitoring space, were tested, and returned safely …
“The initiative provided this life saving temporary intervention to individuals that have traditionally been the hardest to serve.”
Based on this experience, London continued one of the winter sites for another two months in the spring of 2021 and opened two new sites in the winter of 2021-22.
London, Ontario, two sites, winter of 2021-22
In the winter of 2021-22, London, Ontario again operated two sites with cabin-style accommodation with about 60 units. The programs ended in March, 2022. Results were summarized in an April 20, 2022 report.
The site at the Fanshawe Golf Course was deliberately located some distance from downtown (14 kilometres from city hall), in an area with no nearby homes and some distance from any bus routes. It was set up to create “a safe, welcoming and productive environment.” The site was staffed by individuals with lived experience, from Impact London and London Cares. There were 29 individual rooms, operated with 24/7 security, with three meals a day provided by the London Area Food Bank. There was an indoor dining area, kitchen, two washrooms, reception, and a lounge. Transportation for medical, financial and other appointments was arranged.
“The Fanshawe Winter Response was successful in assisting residents’ transition from the street into stable housing programs in a very short amount of time. Many participants thrived being away from the pressures of the downtown core and were able to use this time as a stabilization period: receiving necessary support and treatment, addressing mental health or addiction concerns, connecting to healthcare, community partners, and ultimately housing.”
Of 29 residents,
18 individuals were housed directly to apartments during the 3-month program
5 individuals were housed in transitional housing
4 individuals were successful with addiction treatment
1 healthy baby was born, and the mother connected to supports and services
12 people obtained birth certificates (secondary ID required by most landlords)
20 people completed applications for Rent-Geared-to-Income (RGI) housing
4 people completed several years of taxes
1 person now receives OAS and CPP
4 people reconnected with biological family
1 person went back to previous employment
1 person started employment
1 person returned to school
4 people reconnected with physicians
1 person had surgery and recovered from it while on site
6 people visited a dentist for first time in years
19 people reconnected to healthcare supports
“The Fanshawe Winter Shelter demonstrated that there can be great success when individuals are provided an environment that allows them to focus all their efforts on housing stability.”
London’s second site was for individuals experiencing homelessness who identified as Indigenous and was located at St. Joseph’s Health Care London’s Parkwood site, five kilometres from city hall. The site was operated by Atlohsa Family Healing Services, in collaboration with the city and hospital, and was named Wigiwaaminaan, which is Anishinaabe for “the house that we collectively look after.” Atlohsa created a culturally safe, trauma-informed space that included a teepee where a community fire was maintained by traditional fire keepers through most of the project. Cultural ceremonies were conducted and traditional medicines and meals were prepared and offered. Twenty units were spread across the site and eight beds were hosted inside Parkwood’s J building, including a family residential suite.
“From the safety of Wiigiwaaminaan, several were able to secure permanent housing and many more were able to move forward with the work necessary to secure future housing placements.”
Of 28 residents (20 in cabins, 8 in a building)
13 people moved to housing (7 permanent housing, 1 transitional housing, 4 people reconnected with family and 1 reconnected to community)
1 person was accepted into long term-care at Parkwood Hospital Others were supported with improved health outcomes and worked towards housing stability.
3 Identification clinics were held on site with a total of 19 people applying for identification.
38 people were supported with Rent-Geared-to-Income (RGI) applications and completion of taxes.
7 people began or sustained employment, training, or education programs.”
“The greatest thing that occurred at these sheltered spots was stabilization,” Debbie Kramers, who led London’s program in both winters, said in an interview. “Folks didn’t have to worry about where they were sleeping, where they were getting their food, they didn’t have to sleep with one eye open, they didn’t have to worry about their medical issues.” If there were funding to do this year round, Kramers said, “Yes, I would do that… [it] was very helpful to people.”
Kingston hosted a tiny cabin community of 10 cabins that ran from mid-January, 2022 to mid-May, 2022, as a pilot project that has since been extended until at least April 2023. Queen’s University conducted an independent evaluation of this pilot project; the results are expected in September.
An April 19, 2022 report to Kingston city council said “staff recognize the early successes of this initiative and believe that there is value in exploring how sleeping cabins could be implemented on a seasonal or more permanent basis.” All participants had been added to the city’s By-Name List.
The report listed the following statistics:
13 unique clients resided in the cabins
1 participant obtained employment
2 participants attended employment interviews
15 pieces of identification were obtained
12 medical appointments were attended
Dignity Village, near Portland, Oregon
A 2010 assessment of the self-created, self-managed Dignity Village reported that 21 per cent of the residents who left the village in 2008-09 moved into more stable housing. That compared with 24 per cent of those in emergency shelters. The report said this difference isn’t surprising given that shelters offer professionally staffed case management or support services and Dignity Village did not.
Fully 70 per cent of those who left Dignity Village did return to homelessness, compared to 7 per cent from shelters. (The report noted that the 7 per cent figure was possibly misleading, since it was not known where 41 per cent of those exiting shelters ended up; it assumed many of them also ended up homeless). The report said the high figure on return to homelessness from Dignity Village “may be partially due to the fact that fewer than 40% of residents were at the Village for more than six months (which may not be enough time to stabilize), and 34% were kicked out for rules violations.” That high level of expulsions contributed to a high percentage of exits to homelessness but was also seen as demonstrating that Dignity Village’s board was able “to enforce ‘one-strike’ rules prohibiting violence, theft, and other significant rule violations.”
The report said that Dignity Village residents provided “a unique form of peer support that many villagers identified as critical to their stabilization.” Those who had overcome addictions, for instance, supported those struggling through withdrawal, or those who were employed often connected other residents with their employers. Residents also shared information on programs. More consistent access to professional services, such as housing placement assistance, was seen as likely to support more successful outcomes.
Duncan, B.C. Trunk Road Site
Shelley Cook, executive director of Cowichan Housing Association since September, oversees Duncan, B.C.’s third tiny cabin village. Lack of any housing options means no one is moving out of their village but she strongly supports the program, which she would continue even if all the current residents were houses. She summarized in an interview what she likes best about the program.
“I think it’s the sense of community … the wonderful things that are happening on site—the raised garden beds, the art classes, letter writing. We have a whole peer program where people are being paid to support others who are struggling but also to clean up the streets and be good neighbours and help local businesses. They’re getting some employment skills and some confidence while we are helping the neighbourhood.
“It’s housing, it’s housing with support, it’s a place where they can lock their door at night, and put their stuff. … It’s all about the social determinants of health because you begin to start addressing this mental health crisis, this addiction, this trauma—people are struggling with a multitude of issues—once those basic needs are taken care of. … This is a chance to really provide some supports and get some stability.
“I’ve said before, sure, we want everybody to have their own place … and of course we’ll continue to work toward those things but we can’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. And this is such a better option than what people were having. It’s so, so close to where we want to be.”
Megan Kriger, a director with Lookout Housing and Health which operates the current Duncan site, sees the strengths as well as the challenges that tiny cabin villages can have.43 One of her concerns was specific to Duncan’s situation. In an interview, Kriger said that if money weren’t an object, she’d favour building a shelter or housing, mainly because they have indoor gathering spaces, which the Duncan tiny cabin site doesn’t have. The Kingston, London and Kitchener tiny cabin villages all have, or had, the indoor spaces that Duncan lacks.
Kriger also feels residents who were in hotels during the pandemic had an easier transition to permanent housing than resident of the Duncan’s two earlier tiny cabin villages, because they were indoors and also because they had more rules to follow. And she feels that some people who won’t stay in traditional shelters would still face barriers at tiny cabin villages. For instance, Lookout doesn’t allow visitors, at either its shelters or the Duncan tiny cabin village, a major issue for many people. And both shelters and tiny cabin villages have limits on storing stuff.
That said, Kriger does tiny cabin villages have an important role.
“In an ideal world, you definitely would have a building,” Kriger said. “But again, from a timing and a cost perspective, the tiny homes is, I would say, an ideal crisis management opportunity to get people in from out of the cold, and to start that stabilization period.” And tiny cabin villages serve those who feel unsafe in a traditional congregate shelter, who want more privacy than most shelters provide, or who have health challenges and need to sleep or rest during the day.
Beck Carlow, site supervisor in Victoria, said in an interview that measures of success need to be tailored to the population served. Many of the residents of Victoria’s tiny cabin village have experienced homelessness for 10 or 15 years. “Our reality is not helping folks who have just had a minor setback, our reality is helping folks who are quite complex, [with] many years of homelessness, experiencing mental health challenges, experiencing substance impacts. So our statistics are, how many people have actually been able to remain housed.”
Of the 30 original residents in Victoria’s Tiny Town, 16 were still residents a year after the site opened. One resident moved into permanent housing. Three people were discharged, two for violence, the third for setting a fire in their unit. And some residents left because they found living in the village too restrictive. “We do have a no-guests policy which can be challenging for a lot of our folks who are used to seeing multiple community members day to day.”
Given the challenges with finding affordable housing, referred to later in this report, Kriger and others suggested that the number of people who transition to permanent housing isn’t the appropriate measure of the success of tiny cabin villages. More appropriate is the number of residents at the end of the project who are “housing ready”—the number who have ID, who have been doing housing searches and submitted housing applications.
Three keys: Stability, community and access to services
Three aspects are seen as crucial to whatever success tiny cabin villages achieve:
The stability provided by having a fixed location and your own private space
The shared sense of community created by the village and fostered by shared amenities and programs and
The opportunity to deal with a range of health and other issues through access to health, harm reduction, social, housing, education and employment services that come to the site.
Eric Wiessman, of the University of New Brunswick, has studied Dignity Village, North America’s oldest village, for years and lived there for five weeks in 2011. Dignity Village was sometimes chaotic but still, Weissman observed, unlike the street or hostels or prison, at Dignity Village, the residents had a home. “Once housed, it seems to me, that villagers begin reclaiming a sense of groundedness. It became realistic, once this center was established, to think of other goals….” With the daily challenge of finding a place to sleep safely resolved, every villager Weissman talked to re-established relationship and many sought or found work.
10 income support sessions were provided, including applying for social assistance, completing taxes and obtaining bank accounts
18 employment related support sessions were held, including resumes, employment search, skills development and training certificates
16 life stabilization support sessions were held, including obtaining a transit pass, accessing food banks and court supports
44 housing related appointments and support sessions were held, including housing searches, connecting with housing case managers and street outreach staff, and completing housing applications.
All participants engaged in cooking, cleaning and other life skill enhancements needed to transition to permanent housing.
“If I were smarter, we’d have taken pictures of the residents when they first came,” Chrystal Wilson, manager of the Kingston cabin village, said. Three months later, they just looked so much better.
In May, 2022, Kingston city council approved extending the tiny cabin village program to April 2023, providing a new summer site outside a city arena and returning to the original site at Portsmouth Olympic Harbour for the winter of 2022-23. Staff began looking for a permanent site, which they hoped to announce by August. In the meantime, at city council’s June 29, 2022 meeting, council approved buying another 10 tiny cabins, which would double the current number.