Good news
Features

It takes a village to build a village: prototype Conestoga hut created to model new option for safe sheltering in Victoria

Community members look to ‘start a conversation’ about the need for more emergency shelters

By Emily Fagan
January 28, 2022
Good news
Features

It takes a village to build a village: prototype Conestoga hut created to model new option for safe sheltering in Victoria

Community members look to ‘start a conversation’ about the need for more emergency shelters

By Emily Fagan
Jan 28, 2022
Capital Daily is part of the Trust Project
Good news
Features

It takes a village to build a village: prototype Conestoga hut created to model new option for safe sheltering in Victoria

Community members look to ‘start a conversation’ about the need for more emergency shelters

By Emily Fagan
January 28, 2022
Get the news and events in Victoria, in your inbox every morning.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
It takes a village to build a village: prototype Conestoga hut created to model new option for safe sheltering in Victoria
Photo: Emily Fagan / Capital Daily

One chilly Sunday in January, a dozen community members gathered in the Shelbourne Street Church parking lot with power tools and truck beds full of wood and wire, united by a single goal: to create a safer refuge for people living on the street.

They were building a prototype Conestoga hut, based on the designs created by Erik de Buhr and the Eugene, Oregon-based organization Community Supported Shelters. Community members in Eugene have housed hundreds of people in their community with these huts, which are intended to be quickly assembled, insulated temporary shelters for people experiencing homeless to have a safe place to stay.

“Right now, this [prototype hut] is essentially a proof of concept; it's a way to show the community this is something that could work,” said Krista Loughton, a filmmaker and one of the project’s lead organizers.

Ultimately, she hopes that established housing providers—such as BC Housing—will adopt this model for emergency shelters during extreme weather and public health emergencies. It’s not meant to be a permanent solution, Loughton said, but can help bring people indoors while longer-term solutions are being built.

Conestoga huts are micro-homes with a bed, and unlike tents, can rest comfortably on hard surfaces like parking lots. Although they have no heating, the huts are insulated to protect people from harm in inclement weather conditions like the recent cold snap that upended service delivery for Victoria’s unhoused in December. 

In about two hours, the core of the prototype hut came together. Screws were drilled, the roof was laid, and about a dozen community members pulled together to assemble the structure. By the end, it looked ready for move-in. That, it turns out, is only half the challenge.

Photo: Emily Fagan / Capital Daily

‘A stepping stone’

In Eugene, there are 12 different host locations with between three and 18 huts. Each little community has its own common space, kitchen, garden beds, bathrooms, and a charging station. To live there, residents agree to typical shelter rules (no drug use, no alcohol, no violence) and a general timeframe for their stay. 

De Buhr said that although these huts were initially designed as an affordable, quick way for housed people to create backyard communities, he’s been overwhelmed to see the difference having a quiet, safe place to rest has made in the lives of unhoused people in his community. 

“It gives people on the street hope that they can live semi-autonomous, contributing lives, and it gives them a stepping stone to improve their life circumstances,” he said.

Community Supported Shelters also helps residents with social services and regular check-ins to help them set and achieve goals. During COVID, the organization doubled in size to accommodate the community’s growing need.

Inspired by this program’s success, the group of Victoria-based volunteers are eager to show their city the potential Conestoga huts have for providing people with a step-up off of the streets.

Loughton and the other volunteer organizers have spent nearly 100 hours since December to get this project to where it is—fundraising about $8,000 through a GoFundMe, finding a host for the prototype hut, and preparing all the supplies for their first build.

Initially, they hoped that Alex Bourque, a community member who has been living unhoused for the past year, could move into the first hut—but city bylaws prohibit sleeping or living in structures like these. Bourque has been sheltering on Government Street, where he is exposed to harsh weather conditions and the threat of bylaw officers or passersby stealing his belongings.

But the dream of one day moving into a Conestoga hut has kept him going.

Support Your Community, Support Local Journalism

With paid membership, every penny goes directly to helping our newsroom continue its work and helps our team grow and expand our coverage

Become a Member

“It would completely impact me,” Bourque said. “I think I could actually get my life together once in one.”

Thanks to community support, volunteers have enough funds to build a second Conestoga hut. They’ve partnered with a local homeowner to find an undisclosed patch of private property to build it on, and hope to move Alex in within the next two weeks. In the meantime, the volunteers are also in talks with local municipalities to get a bylaw exemption for the huts so they can house other residents who need them.

Housing is notoriously one of the most hotly debated issues in the city, and Loughton knows there may be some resistance to introducing more shelters. But due to decades of underfunding social housing and not enough current shelter spaces for those who need it, she says it’s something that’s desperately needed while longer-term solutions are being built.

“We need to be able to provide people a space to be, because nobody can fix or work on their life when they’re worried about losing their livelihood,” she said.

And to people on all sides of this issue, Loughton feels that Conestoga huts are more appealing than tents in parks.

The group is hosting an open house for the prototype hut on Jan. 29 from noon to 2 pm, to gain feedback and awareness for the project. Shelbourne Street Church has agreed to host the prototype in their parking lot, where community members can stop by to view it for themselves.

In the long term, organizers like Matt Dell are looking to use this awareness of the Conestoga hut model to get BC Housing or other local housing groups to take the project on, while pushing them to establish more systemic solutions.

“We are not starting a non-profit or building a village, but are rather trying to start a conversation about sheltering alternatives,” he said. “We would hope that an established service provider will build these huts and operate them with all required services.”

De Buhr wasn’t sure if cities beyond Eugene would adopt Conestoga huts, as he says few places are willing to take the same ambitious approaches to solving systemic issues as Eugene does. However, huts have now been built from California to Washington—and now, in Victoria.

“If you've always had the privilege of being housed, it's easy to overlook the value of having your own place to get your thoughts together, or just to rest without being hassled,” he said. “[But] that is something that is lacking on the street."

Article Author's Profile Picture
EMAIL:
TWITTER:
contact@capitaldaily.ca

Support Your Community, Support Local Journalism

With paid membership, every penny goes directly to helping our newsroom continue its work and helps our team grow and expand our coverage

Become a Member

Related News

This Sooke bunny rescue has saved more than 500 rabbits
Stay connected to your city with the Capital Daily newsletter.
By filling out the form above, you agree to receive emails from Capital Daily. You can unsubscribe at any time.