Tiny Home for homeless

Tiny Town in Guelph: turning shipping containers into affordable homes

Container home plan could be piloted before winter, creating affordable units for homeless

Chris Seto

Guelph Mercury

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Before the snow flies next winter, some of the most vulnerable members of the community may end up finding shelter inside a collection of shipping containers.

Tiny Town: that’s what creators are calling the proposed project aimed at providing housing for those living on the street and sleeping rough in parks and forests. “It’s a bold solution to a critical problem,” said Ward 4 councillor Mike Salisbury at an open house – or open box – event on Thursday morning. He and several other city councillors, along with Guelph mayor Cam Guthrie, MPP Mike Schreiner and MP Lloyd Longfield came by the site to see the proposal. The manufacturing prototype was on display at the Wike Bicycle Company at the corner of Stevenson and Beverley streets. Inside was 150 square feet of living space, complete with a toilet and shower, kitchen area and a single bed.

Ward 1 councillor Bob Bell is the owner of Wike and has been working with Adrienne Crowder, manager of the Wellington Guelph Drug Strategy, since last year to develop this tiny home project. He designed the tiny unit from a broken container he had on the property, creating a proof-of-concept to showcase an affordable solution to addressing homelessness. Earlier this year, the mayor’s homelessness task force brought forward a recommendation to create 15 permanent supportive housing units to house the most vulnerable members of the community. Such a project, built from the ground up, could cost upwards of $4.5 million with annual costs of nearly a million dollars. Bell said in contrast to that proposal, by transforming 10 eight-by-20 steel containers into livable spaces, the cost of each unit would be around $50,000, with negligible operating costs. According to the plan at the event, 10 boxes would be arranged in a herringbone pattern with water all plumbing services at one end to keep things efficient. An additional unit could be added for laundry machines, office space or a spot for other community supports.

The plan: the photo on the left shows the position of the 11 containers. The photo on the right shows the proposed foundation with city services running underneath the homes. The collection of containers could fit in a lot that is 15 by 24 metres (50 by 80 feet).

Crowder said the container home plan could be a good way to get homeless people into housing. She said because the capital costs would be so low, it would be affordable and sustainable for someone receiving monthly supports from Ontario Works (OW). For people who use substances, finding somewhere to live on an OW housing allowance of $390 a month is very difficult, she said. Outside of affordability, landlords don’t typically want to rent to someone who uses substances. By providing housing for those struggling with addiction and homelessness, it could allow them to turn themselves around, Crowder said. They'll have the chance to improve their health, they'll fewer less police interactions – there will be a ripple effect. “They’ll be able to manage their lives. They won’t be forced into constantly putting all their energy into where they’re going to be tonight.” One of the requirements to live in such a community might be to be on the by-name list of homeless people and accessing local services. She said Thursday’s event was to gauge reaction from the community at large. Visitors were encouraged to share their thoughts on a piece of paper inside the space.

Chris (the Mercury Tribune has agreed not to publish his last name) is currently homeless. He and his partner have been couch-surfing and moving from place to place for some time now. He attended the event on Thursday and said he was impressed with the space. He said if this prototype was available, “I’d move in today.” The space is big enough for one person, but if families were living there, it might be a little tight, he said, suggesting a longer container be made available for families. Chris said he’s recovering from a substance addiction and can’t stay in the city’s shelter system because many of the people there act as a trigger for him. He said because he’s been homeless for a while and was previously addicted to substances, it’s been hard to find a landlord who will rent to him, or an employer who will hire him. He said he’s hopeful this project will pan out, adding the city is in desperate need of housing units that people can afford.

Guelph mayor Cam Guthrie said the goal should be to have this plan in place before the winter returns, but before it gets the green light there are a few hurdles to get over first, including zoning, infrastructure, placement and access to support services. The next step will be to for council to ask staff to look into those hurdles and how to get over them, he said. If nothing is done, the community will continue to find people “sleeping rough” in parks or off wooded trails in the city.

Building homes out of shipping containers isn’t a new idea in Guelph, but there hasn’t been a proposal like this to specifically target homelessness. Guthrie said over the recent years the rules and bureaucracy around building codes have become more accepting of tiny home solutions and the stigma attached to living in such a space has been eroded.

“We have a convergence here of opportunity.” Bell said the project is not just looking at addressing homelessness in Guelph, but it's setting up a pilot that can be copied in communities throughout the country. “We’re not trying to solve our problem here. We’re trying to create a process where it can be replicated everywhere, very fast.”

Cost Effective Housing for Homeless - Tiny Town Pilot Project

“The homeless need housing”. This is something that Bob Bell, innovator and President of Wike (Pi Manufacturing) and a City Councillor in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, has heard on a number of occasions. The homeless often move around the urban environment with a trailer containing all their belongings, towed behind a bicycle or by hand, and these individuals are left to sleep on the street or in tents. This way of life is precarious, especially in the Canadian climate. The thought kept going through Bob’s mind that there must be a solution to their housing issue that he could address. Add in his values of sustainability and reuse, and an old shipping container on the Wike property with a stiff door that was no longer practical to use for storage, and an idea came to mind: what if this discarded container could be given another life and help the lives of some unfortunate people in our community. The idea grew and developed into a new product…“The Tiny Town”, a small collection of container homes for the homeless that have heating, a bathroom, bed, and kitchen, and can provide shelter, community, and security at a low cost.

Active substance users or people who face other social barriers do better when they have housing, as being without stable shelter creates increased stress. That said, the homeless are difficult to house: they require housing that offers shelter and security, while being sturdy and indestructible, and at an affordable cost. Steel containers can’t be broken, and they can be power washed and spray painted when someone moves out. A Tiny Town of container homes is functional, has low maintenance costs, and the scalability allows for efficiencies. Furthermore, containers can be moved when needed. A 10-unit Tiny Town would be built with services running underneath and down the middle. Furthermore, an 11th container can function as an office and kitchen for support workers, creating a simple and practical system.

Existing social supports are challenged by rapidly increasing numbers of homeless individuals. Current housing proposals with a capital costs of $200-$300,000 per unit are outside the financial capacity of our government. What is required is a specific shelter unit that is designed to fulfil all the needs of the homeless while maintaining a budget of $50-$70,000 per unit. To face housing affordability, the cost per unit must be lowered. Container homes can provide that solution. Pi Manufacturing’s prototype for a Tiny Town is made up of container homes which can be placed side by side on an angle so that each unit has a window, and can be built economically for about $50,000 CAD per unit (municipal servicing included) as opposed to units through status-quo development which cost about $300,000 CAD per unit. With this cost, Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) payments can carry the capital and operating costs of the housing solution. A government organization, charity, or not for profit can own the Tiny Town and service it financially within the allowance of ODSP.

A model of a Tiny Town unit has been developed at the Wike Factory. If you represent a municipality, charity, or social services organization and are interested in discovering how this model can be an ideal solution for your community, please contact Bob Bell at Bob@Wike.ca to schedule a tour. The drawings and plans are open source, available for any community that wants help to solve their homeless crisis.

You are invited to come and learn about this functional, affordable, scalable manufactured housing prototype at an Open House at WIKE, 150 Stevenson St S, Guelph, ON N1E 5N7 on Thursday, May 23, 2019 10 am – 12:30 pm. Guests’ questions and comments will be welcomed to continue to develop an ideal design.