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Advocates for Toronto’s homeless look to ‘tiny home’ movement

Two weeks ago in Denver, city officials demolished a cluster of little pop-up houses that had been built on a downtown site by a citizens’ alliance called Denver Homeless Out Loud (DHOL). Police arrested 10 members for trespassing, which they were apparently doing: The land on which DHOL chose to erect a few shelters for the homeless, Time magazine reported, is being sold by the municipal housing authority to private interests for (what else?) condo development.

The Time notice did not mention, however, that the group’s insurgent gesture came on the heels of its failure to find a legal, suitable place to put up a “tiny house village” for Denver’s homeless. In a statement issued by DHOL on the day its project was launched (and destroyed), exasperation is conspicuous: “Designed for functionality as well as beauty, our village aims to meet not only the needs of our bodies, but the longings of our souls. We are weary of trying to fit into a broken and dehumanizing system in order to find shelter and safety. Winter is coming, and we can’t wait any longer for the bureaucrats and politicians to take action. … We are in a housing crisis.”

A dwelling for a homeless person need not be bigger than 400 square feet. In the Netherlands, parcels are available for free development. (John van Nostrand)

The Denver dust-up got media coverage, of course, because it featured a scenario with elements certain to make headlines: menacing cops in riot gear pitted against virtuous young protesters, the “system” against the “people,” great and powerful Oz versus Dorothy, the small and meek. But the pop newsiness of the incident shouldn’t blind anyone to the fact that Denver’s homeless population is, by all accounts, in a bad way.

Nor should the absence (so far) of a spectacular local confrontation as with the one in Colorado prompt anyone to believe that boom-town Toronto has been spared this sort of problem. For a city this rich, the statistics are appalling. At last count, 78,000 households in Hogtown were on the wait-list for public housing. The York University-based Canadian Observatory on Homelessness has estimated that around 450 men, women and children are living on city streets, and that almost 4,000 are sleeping in government-run hostels.

Despite the situation’s urgency, Toronto’s defenders of the homeless have been fairly quiet for the last while.

“There was a stale period of time when people were frustrated by shelters going under, hundreds of beds being lost, a very stubborn city council,” veteran Toronto housing advocate Cathy Crowe told me a few days ago. “Then, last winter, there were four deaths of homeless people, which caused a coming together of long-term activists. Yes, there is frustration, desperation – but also hopefulness.”

Model of the proposed Pro-Home, designed by John van Nostrand.

This hope is now embodied in a working group that, like Denver Homeless, has been inspired by the so-called “tiny home” movement. Among Ms. Crowe’s collaborators are anti-poverty activist Bonnie Briggs, developer David Walsh (co-creator of the popular Carrot Common retail complex on Danforth Avenue), and Bay Street financial portfolio manager John Andras.

The group’s patron saint is architect and planner John van Nostrand, whose versatile Pro-Home prototype was a “tiny house” before radical downsizing and the term itself became trendy among the urbane and hip.

Ms. Crowe dates her interest in tiny homes to the start of this century, when she was involved with Toronto’s three-year experiment in informal squatter living known as Tent City. At the time the arrangement was bulldozed, in 2002, about 140 people were camped out in DIY digs, three of them constructed from donated kits, and one designed by Mr. van Nostrand.

Longville (Jamaica), 1-bedroom starter housing, stage 2. (John van Nostrand)

“But nothing really happened on the tiny homes front until earlier this year, when Bonnie Briggs said that tiny homes, as solutions to the housing crisis, are happening all around the world, and she wanted to try it in Toronto.” (In a backgrounder prepared for the committee, Ms. Briggs defines a tiny house as a stand-alone dwelling between 65 square feet and 400 square feet in area. She figures that one could be constructed for between $20,000 and $60,000.)

“It’s an affordable way to build permanent housing,” said Ms. Crowe, a street nurse who teaches at Ryerson University. She added that the structures will meet the requirements of building codes. “They are not super-large dog houses.”

Persuading a church, public agency or private developer to provide land for a settlement of tiny homes will probably be no easier in Toronto than it proved to be in Denver. But Ms.Crowe has ruled out a guerrilla action such as DHOL’s. “We want to do this properly,” she said, “so it can be a model for cities across the country.”

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