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'We have the right to housing': Community volunteers unite to build sand bag homes in Kitchener's Tent City

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It was a chilly Saturday in April at Kitchener’s Tent City but that didn’t stop Donald Lacasse from building shelters.

“Providing housing would be the best way possible and this is the cheapest way that we can afford to build one,” said Lacasse, a group member of United Front to End Homelessness.

The structures are entirely made out of sand bags.

“The sand bag houses that are being built are fire resistant, properly ventilated and easy to heat,” said Wren Wombwell, a member of Fight Back KW.

With housing becoming increasingly difficult to secure in Waterloo Region, especially for vulnerable populations, a local group of volunteers aims to address the urgent need for shelter.

“We have the right to housing, it's a human right,” Lacasse said.

The sand bag structures have been slowly taking shape at the encampment at Victoria and Weber streets as part of a project that’s been going on for months.

“It would be a stepping stone that people can get out of tents into a small house until they could get income for apartments and other housing opportunities,” Lacasse said.

The Social Development Centre Waterloo Region (SDC) has been liaising with the group to learn more about the barriers they've been facing.

“The Social Development Centre has been following the development of the sand bag project with interest. The idea was first brought to our attention by lived experts during the plan to end chronic homelessness prototyping process,” a statement emailed to CTV News read in part.

The group of volunteers said the process has been anything but easy.

“We had permit issues with our first structure,” Wombwell said. “It’s a little too big, so we agreed to stop working on it until we can get the proper permits for it. The current structure we’re working on, it’s 108 square feet. It’s the size of an outdoor structure before permits are required. This has been moving really quickly by comparison, so we're hoping to be done in the next month or so.”

The SDC says conversations surrounding the sand bag structures project ended months ago, citing multiple barriers.

“It became clear that there was not a pathway for formal collaboration and the formal conversations stopped. Since then we have watched unsheltered community members, advocates and allies move ahead without the support of institutions to form the United Front to End Homelessness. We have been watching and talking with the United Front members and with regional staff to learn what the major barriers, concerns and challenges are with community led projects like this,” the statement read.

Now United Front to End Homelessness is working independently, purchasing the materials themselves and using donations from the community.

“They're providing windows, doors, roofing material,” Lacasse said. “Everybody wants to solve the problem.”

“We have an online donation and we're hoping to make more ways for folks to support because it seems like the community is really invested in this,” Wombwell added.

Statement from Waterloo Region

CTV News reached out to the Region of Waterloo, who owns the property the structures are being built on, to inquire about these structures. The region responded with the following statement:

“Our priority continues to be the health and safety of those at the 100 Victoria site. The Region continues to provide 24/7 security, garbage collection, site maintenance and portable washrooms. The Region’s Unsheltered Support Workers visit the site frequently to engage with residents, provide connections to services and offers of safer accommodations. Any make-shift structures at the site have not been supplied or approved by the Region and should not be considered safe for use.”

Moving foward

The group believes by providing these shelters, they can meet the immediate needs of individuals facing homelessness as they continue to push for more affordable housing in the region.

“What we need is for the Waterloo Regional council to really take this crisis seriously,” Wombwell said.

“The people are trying to make a difference. Help us make a difference,” Lacasse said.

In the meantime, the SDC is calling on the surrounding area to listen and learn from unsheltered communities as they continue to assert their right to safe housing.

“When we do listen, innovative ideas like A Better Tent City are possible. We are continuing to create spaces for dialogue and learning through our lived expertise consultancy. We hope that the sand bag project can be transformed into an opportunity for learning,” the statement read.

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