The United Way issues a count of people experiencing homelessness every two years. “Numbers matter because people matter”, says Jim Russell of the U.W. PATH took up the challenge of doing something different by following the successful example of tiny homes communities elsewhere. We believed our eyes, our ears and our friends on the street: things are getting worse, the pandemic increases isolation and despair. The UW numbers show “an alarming increase in people experiencing chronic homelessness (71% in 2021 compared to 49% in 2018)”

“Stemming the flow of people into homelessness can’t begin at the shelter door”, says Russell. “Emergency shelters aren’t homes…we must prevent the awfully expensive, very harrowing reality of being homeless.” The United Way extends “a humble thank you” to those 176 people who took part in the survey on the “Point in Time” count day December 19th 2021: to those who shared their stories, “stories of remarkable resilience that remind us how we shouldn’t take for granted the gift of safe housing”.

The Count included those who were staying in emergency shelters, transitional housing, outdoors in tents, makeshift shelters or in other public areas and those who identified as without housing in community meal programs and drop-in service locations. The Count often misses those who are couch-surfing, staying with friends or family temporarily, or living in a motel room. It is difficult because people are often pushed to the margins and remain hidden and out of sight. The social workers doing the PIT count rely on the knowledge of volunteers and the relationships they have with people living outdoors.

“The results from the Count should therefore be considered as the minimum number of individuals and families who were homeless in Peterborough on Dec. 9th, 2021”. At that same point in time there were 288 people experiencing homelessness on the “by name list” kept by Social Services. One year later the numbers have most certainly grown. “604 unique individuals accessed the shelter system at least once during 2021”. For every two people accessing the shelters there are three sleeping unsheltered.

The PIT report reinforces what PATH hears from the people we’re working with: the shelter system, while unfortunately necessary to put a shelter over people’s heads, is a temporary fix.

“Shelters are often full and when beds become available, it is often not known until late in the evening forcing people to wait outside a shelter or set up camp elsewhere. Living outside is difficult in Peterborough because people are asked to move along regularly. Camping gear and belongings are thrown out and campsites are cleared, forcing people to start over at least once per week, sometimes more. This prevents people from establishing any kind of stability that would allow regular connections to supports and services”.

People cannot access shelters if: they have a pet, want to stay together as a couple, are fearful of others in the shelter, cannot stand the noise of others beside them or for many other mental health/addictions issues.

PATH recognizes everyone needs a place to sleep. We are building a tiny homes community starting this winter with Phase One: 10-15 sleeping cabins with wrapround services and supports from agencies and trained volunteers. Residents will have a chance to stabilize their lives. The transitional sleeping cabins will enable people to move into more permanent housing or continue with PATH as we develop our Phase Two: a Tiny Homes Village, from emergency to transitional to affordable housing. The PATH model addresses many of the shortfalls of more traditional responses to poverty: more opportunity for self-management, tolerance, mutual help and resourceful strategies for living with less. Out of necessity people have to negotiate the sharing of space and resources. Living in community comes with its obligations and PATH residents will be expected to abide by the Community Agreement. PATH is a grassroots model for developing low-cost housing – a liberating alternative for people who have been too long managed and marginalized.

PATH welcomes applications, donations, sponsors, volunteers and partnerships.

Sheila Nabigon-Howlett, member of the PATH steering committee.