Wayne Schooner is 67 years old and he cannot remember the last time he had his own home.
“I lived in Vancouver for a long time and I slept on the streets there and under bridges,” he shared. “When I came back home I had no place to go here either, so I mostly slept in my car.”
Schooner is one of four residents chosen to move into the Nuxalk Nation’s new “tiny homes.” The housing, designed specifically for homeless men, is a pilot project of the Nation and is intended to address some of the housing gaps facing the community.
Schooner is one of six children and was born and raised in Bella Coola. He struggled with alcoholism for years but has now been sober for over a decade.
“I started drinking when I was 14 and I was in and out of jail for years,” he said. “Then I quit for 20 years but I started again, and I was back in and out of jail. I quit again and that was a long time ago.”
Schooner mostly slept in his car and said it didn’t bother him too much, but he did get cold.
“I gave a kidney to my mom years ago,” he explained. “She was born with only one kidney and it started to fail, so I gave her mine. Ever since then I get cold more easily.”
Residents who noticed him sleeping in his car in the extreme cold informed the Nation and he was initially moved into the motel units before getting into the home last week.
“I like it here,” he said. “Last fall when I was sleeping in my car I woke up to a big grizzly bear staring in my window. That gave me a scare.”
Schooner is just one of many demographics facing challenges with housing.
Jalissa Moody, former Assistant Asset Manager for the Nuxalk Nation, said that when she started her position with the Nation it was obvious to her that a different approach was required.
Moody has since moved on to a government internship in Victoria, but she was on hand to witness the moving in process this week.
“Back in 2016 I was taking all of the housing applications and I could see there was a wide range of applicants, but I could also see that our housing stock was geared more towards families,” she explained. “Of course this makes sense, but it doesn’t take into account all of our people, and as Nuxalk people we want to provide for our entire community.”
Moody, who completed her education in Interior Design and sustainable building, had been researching the concept of tiny homes and decided to approach Chief Councillor Wally Webber with the idea. He encouraged her to pursue it, so she took the concept to Bert Snow with Health and Wellness to get an idea of the gaps in the housing needs.
“We learned fairly quickly that there was not a lot of housing options for single men, especially those who are struggling with trauma and addiction,” she said. “Many of these men were homeless in the sense that they didn’t have a permanent roof over their heads, they were sleeping in their cars, they were couch surfing.”
Snow got to work determining who should qualify as a tenant and how the program would work while Moody pitched the idea to Council. They were in full support.
“We focused on the building and Health and Wellness focused on the tenants,” said Moody. “We wanted to make the buildings to the same standard as our current homes, as well as ensure they met building codes and incorporated sustainable energy.”
Moody enlisted the help of Hakai Energy Solutions, who outfitted the homes with solar panels on the roofs. The homes are technically “off-grid,” generating most of their power from the solar panels, but are hooked into the grid to ensure they aren’t left in the cold if the panels aren’t enough on cloudy days.
With the successful launch of the carpentry program through Nuxalk College, they were also built by local hands. This combination has produced a product that is designed, built, and now occupied by members of the Nation.
“I also sourced most of the interior fixtures locally, as we wanted to showcase that we are able to do things here,” she explained. “It was important to us to keep the money circulating here.”
Snow and his team at Health and Wellness said they hit the ground to determine how many people were homeless, as it isn’t always an obvious problem.
“Some people were sleeping outside, in their cars or in vacant buildings,” said Snow. “Some were couch surfing, and this number was quite high at times.”
Snow and his team, which included consultant Brad Dennis and intervention and prevention coordinator Peter Snow, began to develop a mission statement and a plan for the future residents.
To be considered for tenancy, applicants for the tiny homes must have been experiencing homelessness for six to 12 months, be a single male 19 years or older, and a member of the Nuxalk Nation. Sobriety is not required, but tenants must be demonstrate readiness to commitment to healing.
The concept of healing is grounded in the mission statement of the tiny homes and reads “solidly standing as we make our path good.” This new program is being delivered in partnership with Nuxalk College, and is designed to be flexible and supportive with facets that include education, upgrading, art, traditional medicine, life coaching and meals.
“We are approaching our tenants as people who have experienced what is known as ‘complex trauma,’“explained Lawrence Northeast, an adult education coordinator at Nuxalk College. “Our tenants need to feel as they belong at the college, so we have designed a program that meets their individual needs. Our goal is to meet them where they’re at each day.”
Snow said that research suggests that many homeless individuals are very disconnected from society, and he’s hopeful having a home base will encourage them to reconnect.
“Initially we had very strict rules but we decided not to enforce them,” he explained. “We’re hoping the healing plan can help them to comfortably adjust them into society again.”
The homes are completely self-contained units, a total of 338 square feet, and are designed with high ceilings and an open concept, giving the impression of a much larger space. The middle unit houses shared laundry facilities and a central power system to maximize space. Located conveniently across from the college, each home also features panoramic mountain views.
Moody, who created the design herself and has since received requests for the blueprint from as far away as New Mexico, is hopeful that the concept of the tiny homes can be adapted and changed to meet the future housing needs.
“There simply isn’t enough housing, and this is a problem everywhere,” said Moody. “It’s not unique to our Nation or this community.”
This isn’t the first time a B.C. community has employed tiny homes to address the homelessness situation. The Yale First Nation, located just outside Hope, B.C., announced its plans last spring to build tiny homes for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents of the community.
The idea is to build a dozen 280-square-foot homes on the Nation’s land about 10 minutes outside of Hope along Highway 7, for rent at affordable rates to any members of the community.
Part of an economic development project of the Yale First Nation, the project also aims for zero hydro usage through the use of solar panels and energy efficient building materials.
Housing manager Crystal Sedore said that the project is designed to benefit the Nation in the long run: the profits gained from what is left over from mortgage payments will go back to the Nation’s economic development reserves.
However, the rent will be very affordable, with a person on social assistance only expected to pay about $375 per month, and that rent is tied to the Nation’s mortgage at Royal Bank, so they are always guaranteed to make their payments.
Sedore said that there are many Indigenous people who are not connected to a Nation or band — non-status First Nations, people from Nations in other parts of Canada or even the United States, Inuit or Metis — who could benefit from the tiny home project.
“These are the sort of people who fall through the cracks when it comes to Aboriginal services, and so by us providing housing off-reserve, we are offering all of those people options as well,” Sedore said. “Off-reserve projects like this will allow us to gather them in.”
Sedore said that their first units, which are factory made in Squamish, are expected to arrive this April and they are already full. Not all of them are tiny homes, they also ordered apartments, triplexes and duplexes. Preference was given first to Yale Nation members, then to First Nations on and off-reserve, then to the community at large. They filled up immediately.
“The tiny homes are a great option for some people, especially single people or youth aging out of care,” said Sedore. “But they don’t work for everyone. We had 40 people signed up for 12 units and I could easily build another 20 and have them full tomorrow.”
Chief Councilor Wally Webber said the Nation is still exploring the concept of more tiny homes and alternative models of housing, especially for sectors of the population that are vulnerable, such as the elderly.
Webber said it’s a relief to have members such as Schooner off the streets.
“I was terrified we were going to find someone frozen outside or in their car,” he said. “I’m really pleased with the outcome of this project so far and I’m looking forward to seeing it in action.”