Skip to main content

City staff have recommended that Vancouver experiment with building “tiny shelters” as emergency dwellings for homeless people, in a bid to find new ways of housing those who aren’t well served by the existing shelter system.

The proposed two-year pilot project would allocate up to $1.5-million for the construction of 10 small, free-standing structures in the parking lot of the Lu’ma Native Housing Society’s Klahowya Tillicum Lalum shelter, near the Downtown Eastside. Each structure would be able to house up to two people at a time, and would have heating, air conditioning, sleeping space, storage space “and possibly a place to sit,” according to a staff report on the initiative.

Inhabitants would have access to the main shelter’s facilities, meals, programs and staff. The project would follow in the footsteps of similar programs in Duncan, B.C., and Victoria.

City council is scheduled to decide Wednesday on whether to proceed with the idea.

The city’s push to study tiny shelters originated with an October, 2020, motion from Green Party Councillor Pete Fry. The proposal initially met resistance from city staff, who issued a report citing concerns that included high costs, lack of space and regulatory roadblocks.

Mr. Fry said in an interview that he believes the Provincial Court’s January decision not to grant an injunction against a homeless encampment in the city’s CRAB Park is proof Vancouver needs a new approach to housing its most vulnerable citizens. The court found the city’s park board had not satisfied itself that encampment residents would still be able to access vital services and facilities if they were evicted from the park.

“What we heard loud and clear … was that the SROs and the shelters aren’t appropriate housing for a lot of the population, and on those grounds they’re better off in CRAB Park,” Mr. Fry said. The increased privacy and autonomy offered by tiny shelters makes them a more humane and dignified option than shared shelters, he said.

Vancouver housing activist Fiona York agrees existing shelter options lack privacy and space, and that alternatives are necessary.

“In many cases, it’s also that the current SROs and shelters are uninhabitable due to maintenance, pests, violence, theft etc.,” Ms. York said. She praised the creativity of the tiny shelters, but added that they are temporary dwellings, not the permanent housing that many community members have said they need.

The size and design of the proposed shelters have raised concerns among housing advocates.

“They are essentially garden sheds, and I am concerned about the dignity of them … I would be more excited if they were self-contained tiny homes,” said Janice Abbott, chief executive of Atira Women’s Resource Society.

But Ms. Abbott said the pilot project is a positive step toward tackling homelessness in the city.

“Not everything works for everybody, so the more choices people have, the better,” she said.

The project’s budget would come from the city’s Empty Homes Tax. The staff report says implementing the pilot at the Klahowya Tillicum Lalum shelter, where there is existing infrastructure, would make it more affordable than choosing a stand-alone site.

Mr. Fry said he believes the plan could be further tailored to include more support from the province.

“Vancouver has gone above and beyond our role in addressing homelessness … I think we need to assert the senior government’s role in supporting that as well. And a regional approach, too. We cannot continue to be … going alone,” he said.

“I would hope that the only real opposition is the timeline and compelling urgency to deliver this faster, but I recognize that this is a pilot and this is going to take some time,” he added. “I’m hoping for solid support by council.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe