British Columbia

Volunteers in Prince George, B.C., vow to continue building tiny homes, despite city's warnings

Mayor Simon Yu campaigned on building emergency shelters for unhoused residents in northern B.C.'s largest city. A year later, community volunteers have taken on the task despite limited resources and municipal roadblocks.

There are still about 60 people on the waitlist for tiny homes, say volunteers

A group of people works on a wooden structure outdoors in the snow.
Volunteers in Prince George, B.C., say they plan to build as many tiny homes in the Moccasin Flats homeless encampment as they are able to. (Kate Partridge/CBC)

Volunteers are working in snow and gusting winds to finish building shelters for residents of a homeless encampment in Prince George, B.C.

And they say they won't stop construction on the insulated tiny homes, even as the city issued warnings that it is illegal to build and occupy the structures.

"It's pretty awful, mean ... Do they want us to freeze, or what?" said tiny home resident Nikita Teegee while standing in the blowing snow on Thursday, the windchill making it feel like –10 C. 

"This should be encouraged ... it's hard to get into housing and we're people, too."

Woman stands in front of plywood structure
Nikita Teegee says her new tiny home is a step up from the tent she's spent past winters in. (Kate Partridge/CBC News)

Last week, bylaw officers posted red and yellow signs on Teegee's door warning that the structure is illegal. Both the stop-work and do-not-occupy notice warn that further construction is illegal without authorization from the city — though both the mayor and a city spokesperson say there are no current plans to enforce this.

Either way, Teegee says she has no plans to move out of her newly built tiny home and the people building them say they have no plans to stop.

WATCH | Tiny home construction underway:

Volunteers building tiny homes in Prince George, B.C.

5 months ago
Duration 1:31
As winter sets in, a group of volunteers are building insulated shelters at a homeless camp in northern B.C., despite a warning from the city that the activity is illegal.

Homes provide safety and security: Volunteers

Brad Gustafson, a contractor by trade, is helping lead the construction efforts, designing shelters tall enough to stand in but small enough to heat. He says they are not a perfect solution, but provide more protection than a tent or tarp.

"The three criteria are safety for their person, security for their belongings, and insulation for their warmth," he told CBC News. Gustafson is self-employed and says he's spending about 30 hours a week at the encampment, known as Moccasin Flats. 

Plywood structure with items surrounding it
This tiny home was built with donations from the community and volunteer labour. The City of Prince George says it's illegal, though they say they have no plans to enforce the stop-work or do-not-occupy orders. (Kate Partridge/CBC News)

About eight volunteers are working to build the shelters, which have wooden frames and are lined with insulation.

Another lead volunteer, Phillip Frederiksson, says they can't wait any longer for various levels of government to find appropriate housing for the roughly 50 people living at Moccasin Flats. 

Frederiksson is helping with construction and has been running an online fundraising campaign that has raised more than $6,000. He plans to build as many homes as possible using the funds.

Man stands in snowy backdrop with red jacket
Phillip Fredriksson has been fundraising for materials to build tiny homes for Moccasin Flats residents. (Kate Partridge/CBC News)

"It feels pretty amazing. It proves to me that the community wants something done here and that they don't, unfortunately, have faith in the city to take care of it."

Court-protected camp

The Moccasin Flats encampment won court-protected status in 2021 when the city lost a bid to evict the people living there.

In his ruling, Chief Justice Christopher E. Hinkson said the city had failed to prove there was adequate shelter space available for the encampment residents, noting that many existing shelter spaces are inaccessible for people living with mental health disorders and addiction.

In September of this year, the city removed another encampment in the downtown area, telling residents to seek shelter space or move to Moccasin Flats, which it called a "designated temporary overnight sheltering area."

Red and yellow laminated notices that read in bold "DO NOT OCCUPY" and "STOP WORK NOTICE"
Two notices were posted by City of Prince George bylaw officers, accompanied by RCMP, on Nov. 10. They advise volunteers and occupants that the tiny home structures are illegal. (Kate Partridge/CBC News)

This move followed a decision by council to adopt a centralized encampment model as a way to control where people are allowed to sleep. In adopting the bylaw to support the model, council also defined the type of structures that could be built at Moccasin Flats. According to the definition, shelters must be temporary and portable, built with materials including nylon, plastic, or cardboard. The wooden, insulated structures being built do not fit that definition. 

Mayor Simon Yu, elected last year, campaigned in part on a call to build emergency shelters for unhoused residents in the city. But Yu also voted in favour of the bylaw that prohibits such shelters, a move he admits makes fulfilling his campaign promise difficult. 

Man in office setting
Mayor Simon Yu is an engineer and campaigned on a promise to build emergency shelters for the unhoused. A year later, he admits it's been harder than he thought it would be. (Kate Partridge/CBC News)

"According to that definition, [the allowable structures] cannot survive the winter ... We cannot violate our own bylaw, on the one hand. On the other hand, if people are living [at Moccasin Flats], then we have a safety issue here," he told CBC News. 

"And if necessary, bylaws are just a piece of paper. We can change that." 

Both Fredriksson and Yu also said they have plans to meet to discuss how to allow the project to move forward, with Yu saying he admires the work being done by the volunteers and their desire to help people in need.

However, Yu says the city needed to issue the stop-work and do-not-occupy notices in order to protect themselves from liability in case of an accident, injury, or death as a result of the construction, since the encampment sits on city property.

The interior of an insulated wooden building.
In addition to the shelters a larger insulated bunkhouse has also been built to be used as a gathering place in the camp. (Phillip Fredricksson)

But Fredriksson says the notices have had other consequences, as well. 

"People see these notices and immediately the community at Moccasin Flats thinks that they're not going to be receiving a tiny home that we've promised. And on top of that, all of our donors that have been donating ... It's put fear in them."

He says he's noticed donations have slowed down in the week since the city posted the orders. 

Gustafson says the group is seeking legal council to help navigate the tension. 

"I actually believe we have legal standing to continue, so we're going to keep building them and we will see how this all works out."

Man with beard stands in front of construction materials
Brad Gustafson is a self-employed contractor and helped design the tiny homes for residents of the Moccasin Flats encampment. (Kate Partridge/CBC News)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Partridge is an Associate Producer and Reporter in Prince George on the unceded territory of the Lheidli T'enneh. You can contact her at kate.partridge@cbc.ca.

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