‘A Better Tent City’ a haven for the region’s homeless

By Ian Hunter

A former chief administrative officer with the city of Kitchener and a local entrepreneur are bridging the gap to affordable housing for the region’s homeless.

Jeff Willmer and Ron Doyle, owner of Lot 42, teamed up and developed “A Better Tent City” as a short-term solution. 

Doyle provides the real estate at 41 Ardelt Place to house 20 small cabins and part of his indoor space as a shelter for additional campers. Willmer brings his wealth of experience in the public sector to this project.

“Even though we have shelters in the community, there are a lot of people who remain unsheltered,” Willmer said. “Ron became aware of this and we started working on an initiative to see if we could create tiny homes or cabins for people that would be pretty cheap to build, but would give people a step up from roughing it or tenting in the woods.”

The initiative began last October, but once COVID forced most people to stay sheltered indoors, the project came to fruition at a brisk pace. Thanks in part to $70,000 in community donations from individuals and businesses, A Better Tent City constructed eight-by-ten-foot cabins stationed on the property at 41 Ardelt.

It costs less than $3,000 to build and equip a cabin and turn it into someone’s home. A place they can feel comfortable, somewhere to lock up their belongings, and somewhere to feel safe at night.

“The COVID pandemic really kicked things into a higher gear,” Willmer said. “We weren’t really ready to start yet, but by the time it was mid-April, we realized this isn’t going away.

“The rest of us are staying home and sheltering in place, but homeless people and unsheltered people don’t have a home to go to. Ron very quickly made his land and his buildings available, and as of the middle of April, we had about 15 or 20 people tenting indoors in one of the industrial buildings.”

Together, close to 40 people have developed their own sense of kinship and community living at A Better Tent City. Nadine Green is the matriarch of the community, and she lives on the property and ensures all the community members get what they need.

A Better Tent City is a step up for most of these people looking for shelter, and it also provides a sense of stability. Willmer said they are grateful for the opportunity to live at 41 Ardelt without fear of being uprooted to another location.

“Compared to tenting in the woods, or in a park, or sleeping in a parking lot somewhere, they have access to toilets, there’s a kitchen, they now have showers and laundry facilities, they have all the facilities that enable them to conduct their lives in a really stable way,” Willmer said.

“So they’re really appreciative of that. For some of these folks, it had been many months since they had been able to take a shower.” In addition to the cabins, there are common areas for laundry, showers and toilets.

A Better Tent City isn’t a viable long-term solution for the region’s homeless, as Willmer sees it more as a stepping stone, with the next step progressing towards transitioning these people into affordable housing.

With Doyle footing the bill for the operating costs and the cabins being built through community donations, Willmer said they still need volunteers to assist with A Better Tent City’s food program. Food preparation is an ongoing need, and they could always use more help.

They also appreciate financial donations, which help provide even more people at A Better Tent City with some stability. Overall, Willmer feels the region is taking the step in the right direction by offering more affordable housing in the region.

Last week, the city of Kitchener announced two large-scale affordable housing projects which will provide housing for 61 individuals. Both the federal and provincial government will provide more than $5 million for these initiatives.

A Better Tent City isn’t the final landing place, it’s the next step to help put a roof over their heads for good.

“We really appreciate the community’s support, but the big focus here should be on building affordable housing,” Willmer said. “We are simply a stopgap measure. And I think that other communities and nations have shown that it can be done. For all of us as Canadians, the solution is in our own hands. We need to be more aggressive about making it happen.”

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