“A radically different approach”: City proposes modular homes and 24/7 support for people living in encampments

If council approves, new modular housing could be in place at the Wolfe Street encampment as soon as October
The Wolfe Street encampment seen on May 5, 2023. Municipal staff have proposed new modular housing units for people currently living unsheltered. (Photo: Will Pearson)

In a move Town Ward Councillor Alex Bierk is calling “a radically different approach” to homelessness, the City is proposing the construction of modular housing units on the City-owned Wolfe Street parking lot, which is currently the site of Peterborough’s largest homeless encampment.

The modular housing would offer “a more secure, safe, and healthier form of temporary housing for those currently unsheltered,” a staff report detailing the plan states. If approved by city council this month, the housing could be in place as soon as October of this year, according to the report.

The proposal would be paid for primarily with new provincial funding for homelessness that was announced by local MPP Dave Smith in April. Residents of the housing would also be expected to chip in; they’d have to pay rent using part of their social assistance cheques.

Bierk said the plan was primarily developed by him and Ashburnham Ward Councillor Keith Riel, in consultation with City staff. “I’ve been meeting nonstop behind the scenes, Keith Riel and I and the City staff, to put this together.”

Councillors Alex Bierk and Keith Riel with One City Peterborough co-executive director Christian Harvey in March 2023. (Photo: City of Peterborough)

In addition to offering new, temporary housing units, the plan proposes an overhaul of other City-funded homelessness programs. The City’s Overflow homeless shelter, which is next door to the Wolfe Street lot, would become a 24/7 service and support hub for people experiencing homelessness, including those living in the modular homes next door.

The Overflow shelter could even cease offering overnight accommodations altogether, according to Sheldon Laidman, the City’s community services commissioner. “Ideally, the modular units would serve to replace the overflow shelter beds at 210 Wolfe Street as well as accommodate persons tenting,” Laidman wrote in an email to Currents.

The Overflow shelter averaged 26 clients each night in the first quarter of 2023, and, by the City’s count, between 53 and 70 people have been living unsheltered in Peterborough recently, the report said.

“Offering people modular homes instead of tents could really work,” said Christian Harvey, co-executive director of One City Peterborough. “There’s a lot of potential here.”

But the success of the plan would depend on how it’s implemented, Harvey said, and people with lived experience of homelessness would need to have a say in the design of the program. “How this is run matters,” he said. “What we learned through our time running Stop Gap [One City’s overnight winter drop-in centre] was that valuing people’s autonomy is of the utmost importance.”

Several unhoused people at the Wolfe Street encampment on Friday said they liked the sound of the modular homes proposal, though there was also some skepticism that the plan will go forward.

Jay, who spent the entire winter in a tent outside the Wolfe Street shelter, said he would “100 percent” live in a modular housing unit. But only temporarily. He said his ultimate goal is to find permanent housing and get sober, so he can be reunited with his children. “I know I’m gonna hit that goal,” he said.

But Jay also had a lot of questions about how the modular home proposal would work, including whether each unit would have a lock on the door and if police could enter units without a warrant.

Jay said he would he would “100 percent” live in a modular housing unit instead of a tent. But not forever. He said his ultimate goal is permanent housing, so he can reunite with his children. (Photo: Will Pearson)

Another man, who only gave his initials, A.M., said modular homes are an “excellent idea” and called the plan a “no brainer.”

A.M. has spent a few nights at the Wolfe Street encampment, but has been sleeping at the Brock Mission lately. Given the opportunity, he would live in a modular housing unit, he said. “I got no choice.” He’d live anywhere he can at this point, especially in the winter months, he said. “There aren’t a lot of places you can warm up.”

A.M. likes the idea of having a space to call his own, where his belongings would be safe. When you don’t have your own door to lock at night, you’re vulnerable to getting “rinsed” (being robbed), he said.

Another man, named Larry, said the proposal sounds “beautiful.” “Yes sir, I’m in,” he said. “Sign Larry up.” But he’s skeptical that it will happen. “Wouldn’t you be?” he asked. He said the City ignored the needs of encampment residents like him all winter and hasn’t answered their calls to have port-a-potties brought in, so he’s doubtful that things will change now.

A new approach?

The proposal appears to signal a shift in approach from the City, which in recent years has justified the enforcement of its ban on camping in public parks by arguing there are shelter beds, housing programs and other services for people who are tenting.

But those claims have faced opposition from people with lived experience, who say the services available don’t meet the community’s needs and that encampment evictions are a human rights violation.

Now, city staff are acknowledging at least some of those concerns. The report states, for example, that “some individuals who are unsheltered will not stay in the shelter system, as it does not meet their needs or preferences.”

It also acknowledges that Peterborough does not currently offer the resources that many people who live rough require to resolve their homelessness. Most people on the City’s list of people experiencing homelessness “require 24/7 permanent supportive housing, which is not available in the City and County of Peterborough,” the report stated.

Harvey said he appreciates the apparent willingness from the City to change direction. “It feels like there’s an acknowledgment of the issue, which I’m really grateful for,” he said.

“This report seems to acknowledge [that] we have to do things differently,” Harvey said. “I’m more hopeful than I have been with reports in the past. I would be very willing to engage in trying to make this plan work.”

Bierk said he appreciated how the plan would allow people to stay where they are, close to the downtown. “The [dominant] narrative is to always ship people out of town, or put them on the edge of town,” he said. “And we have a track record of doing that, right, we put people up at Trentwinds [motel], we put people up at Motel Six … And so this [proposal] is cool to me, because we’re meeting people where they’re at.”

Concerns from neighbours

Mike Melnik lives on Dalhousie Street between George and Aylmer, and he said he plans to oppose the project.

“I’m not against shelters, I’m not against helping marginalized people,” he said. But Melnik thinks the area is not suitable for a shelter, or temporary housing for unhoused people. “It’s the wrong place, and it’s beside primary residences,” he said. 

Ever since the Overflow shelter was relocated to 210 Wolfe Street and an encampment sprang up next door, neighbours have lodged complaints about drug use, vandalism, erratic behaviour, public defecation, and other concerns.

Melnik doesn’t believe the modular housing proposal would be an improvement on the current situation. “You’re taking one shit show, and you’re exchanging it with another shit show,” he said. “It’s not going to make it better.”

Melnik is bringing his concerns straight to the mayor; he has a meeting with Jeff Leal soon, he said.

Instead of building modular housing, Melnik wants the city to invoke its anti-camping bylaw and clear the encampment. “Why aren’t we enforcing is my question,” he said.

Melnik and Bierk have spoken about the neighborhood’s concerns, and the councillor believes his plan will ease the tensions in the neighborhood. 

“What we are doing is we’re actually highly resourcing a neighbourhood that’s drastically under-resourced right now,” Bierk said. “We’re meeting the needs of the neighbourhood, right, by offering washroom facilities and showers and offering some structure, offering some more stable forms of shelter, providing people with 24/7 support.”

These services “are not going to make it more chaotic down at Wolfe Street,” he said. “These are things that are going to meet the needs and concerns of people in the neighbourhood.”

Many details left to work out

The report going to council on Monday offers a broad outline of the modular housing plan, but it leaves many specifics to be worked out over the coming months.

“There’s about a trillion details that need to get ironed out,” Bierk said.

Coun. Alex Bierk in his studio on May 5, 2023. Bierk helped develop the plan to build modular housing at the Wolfe Street encampment. Now, he’s hoping his councillor colleagues approve it. (Photo: Will Pearson)

“Staff are seeking Council support for the concept and location, and the delegation of decision-making abilities to ensure all elements required can be implemented by the fall of 2023,” the report states.

The exact design and number of the modular units, for example, is still undetermined. What form the support services will take also remains unclear, but the report says that lockers, washrooms, showers, and 24/7 supports are envisioned.

There are also no specifics around which organizations would run the site, though the report states that most major social service agencies in Peterborough are behind the project and would be “relied upon to be involved in the operation of the site.”

This month, municipal staff are just asking councillors to approve the general plan without these specifics ironed out. If council approves the concept, another report will come to council in August to give an update on how the project is proceeding.

Councillors will consider the plan for the first time on Monday, May 8. Then, they will vote on it for a final time on May 23.

Bierk didn’t want to speculate on how other councillors might feel about the plan. “We’re sort of just feeling out with our colleagues where they stand with it,” he said. “But we’re going to continue to champion the recommendations.”


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