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How one Ontario city is using modular cabins to help with ‘unprecedented’ homelessness crisis

A private cabin framed in steel has provided a measure of stability for one resident of a new community for unhoused people in Peterborough, Ont.

“I love it. It’s great. I got lots of security, you know, people that care,” said the resident, 45, who didn’t want her name used to avoid stigma.

“The workers are great here and if you need anything, they’re right there.”

A mother of five children, aged 15 to 27, the resident said living in Peterborough’s Modular Bridge Housing Community is better than being in an encampment.

“It was scary at night. A lot of fighting, a lot of weapons, a lot of drugs. Terrible, terrible, terrible. Not enough food. Just couldn’t wash up. Couldn’t do much of anything — feed yourself or even leave your tent. You’d have to bring everything you own with you,” she said.

“I’d wake up crying because I’d be so cold.”

Now, Peterborough is garnering attention both provincially and across the country for this project, as cities and towns are trying to develop solutions to get people out of encampments. The city and its partner agencies also examined similar projects in other communities, including an outdoor shelter in Waterloo Region, Kitchener’s A Better Tent City and Kingston’s sleeping cabins pilot program.

The resident who spoke with CBC News is one of 50 unhoused people selected to live in the units on a former parking lot after Peterborough decided the 106-square-foot modular cabins, arranged in four rows, were one way to address what it calls its “unprecedented” problem of homelessness. City staff say there are challenges to running the site three months after it opened, but there have been signs of success, too.

“Modular bridge housing is an important tool in the city’s overall strategy to ending chronic homelessness,” the city says on its website.

This resident, a 45-year-old woman, says of the site: ‘I love it. It’s great. I got lots of security, you know, people that care.’ (Michael Cole/CBC)

Peterborough, located roughly 140 kilometres northeast of Toronto, says there are more than 230 unhoused people in the city and surrounding county, a number that includes people staying in shelters and couch surfing. An estimated 40 people of that number are sleeping rough.

‘It’s worth every dollar,’ mayor says

Peterborough Mayor Jeff Leal says the city invested in modular homes because it wanted a comprehensive solution to homelessness. He said there was one large encampment, plus many smaller ones, throughout the city.

“I fundamentally believe that a country as rich as Canada and a province as rich as Ontario shouldn’t have people in tents in the middle of winter,” Leal said.

Leal said the investment is worth the money because it will keep people out of emergency rooms and put less of a strain on the health care system.

“It’s worth every dollar. These are human lives. By making this new investment, we are going to put individuals on a new trajectory in life,” he said, adding that city staff are hearing from other municipalities across Ontario and the rest of Canada, as many grapple with how to deal with homelessness.

“I’m very hopeful that both the government of Ontario and the government of Canada recognize what we’re doing right here in Peterborough,” he said. “This could be a prototype and we’d be looking at some more additional resources that could be employed in this type of housing.”

Operating costs of project pegged at $1.9M annually

A staff report that went to Peterborough city council on Monday said building the modular housing community cost more than $2.4 million, while operating the site is expected to cost more than $1.9 million annually. Peterborough received $2.5 million for the project from the province in 2023 through its Homelessness Prevention Program. The project is funded for two years.

The site, which opened in November, contains round-the-clock security. The Elizabeth Fry Society of Peterborough operates the site, while Finally a Home, a subsidiary of the Peterborough Housing Corporation, manages the site as the landlord.

There is a security hub, washrooms and showers separate from the units, and a service room. One of the 50 units has a toaster, toaster oven and microwave. Laundry is done off site. An indoor community space, which will include a kitchenette and laundry facilities, is not open yet.

Each unit, which costs $21,150 to build, comes with a bed, bedding, mini fridge, smoke alarm, personal heater, air conditioning unit, and storage space. The units are side by side, with a door at the front and a window at the back.

Peterborough modular housing project 2
A staff report says the program has seen ‘early successes,’ including only four emergency service calls within the project’s first 10 weeks, which it says shows stability when compared with ‘encampment scenarios.’ (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

The units are meant to be transitional housing. Dinner is provided daily and residents have to agree to “personalized care plans” through which they set individual goals with the aim of stabilizing themselves, maintaining their housing and employment and staying healthy. 

The staff support the residents in reaching their goals and connecting them to agencies in Peterborough, the report says.

City reports ‘early successes’ with project

There have been “early successes,” according to the report, including only four emergency service calls within the project’s first 10 weeks, a number it says show stability when compared with “encampment scenarios.” The report says residents were able to stabilize themselves within weeks of moving into the community.

“When people move from chronic homelessness into housing, there is often a period of destabilization for individuals. In the modular community, people who moved into the community quickly adapted to their new homes, showcasing positive mental and physical improvements within days,” the report says.

Claire Belding
Claire Belding, manager of client services at the Elizabeth Fry Society of Peterborough, says: ‘I’m just really immensely proud of these residents to see what they have faced and to come in here to be willing to participate in this model.’ (Submitted by Samuel Belding)

Residents moved into the units in November. 

There are currently 47 residents on site, with some units being used by staff. Six have already been kicked out, five of whom were evicted for reasons related to violence.

Once a resident leaves, another resident moves in. Some of the residents are working full-time.

Residents, who are tenants, pay their Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Program shelter allowance, a rent that’s geared to their income, or a percentage of their income from employment.

The resident interviewed by CBC Toronto pays $556 a month.

She said she lived in a tent for about three months after her husband, a farmer more than 20 years her senior, died following a car crash. She became homeless because she couldn’t afford rent. 

Currently, she is addicted to fentanyl but is working to get off the drug with the help of a program. She said she hopes to overcome her addiction to improve her relationship with her children. 

Claire Belding, manager of client services for the Elizabeth Fry Society of Peterborough, said many of the residents are coming out of “survival mode” after being unhoused for a long time. She said there are wraparound services and collaboration from many different service providers.

“I think this model allows service users independence and autonomy,” she said. “We want to meet people where they’re at and we want to support them just to be safe.”

Belding said there are rules, including no guests between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. and zero tolerance for violence. If residents use drugs on site, they are encouraged to let the staff know so that they can check on them.

A view of the modular housing units in Peterborough.
Residents have begun to personalize their units, an update from the city says. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

Belding said the ultimate goal is to find the residents permanent housing, she said.

“I’m just really immensely proud of these residents to see what they have faced and to come in here to be willing to participate in this model. It’s very hard,” she said.

“We have a lot of regulations, a lot of rules around our occupancy agreements because we have to keep everybody on site safe and they’ve adapted and thrived.”

Not a solution for housing, city staff person says

Jessica Penner, project manager from the city of Peterborough, said the modular bridge housing community is a temporary way to address homelessness in the city. She said the program fits a need. 

“I think we have to continue to remember that this isn’t a solution for housing,” she said. “This is one piece of a larger puzzle where we need lots of different options for different people.”

Penner said the city runs a liaison committee to hear concerns from the community. She said there was an encampment on the site of the modular housing community and the city moved the encampment across the street to allow for construction of the site.

As for next steps, the report says city staff will monitor the project and evaluate it, work on early successes, learn from similar communities, and draft a plan for what happens after the two-year term of the project ends on Nov. 30, 2025.

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