January Focus Group

On Wednesday, January 21, 2015, members of the People Working Group facilitated a focus group with representatives from The Working Centre who are knowledgeable about the Kitchener housing infrastructure and have relationhips with people who might benefit from an alternative housing solution. The purpose was to assist the class understand who might benefit from the solution and what their wants and needs would be in relation to housing. A key goal was to gain knowledge and reduce our assumptions and biases by considering the situations of real individuals.

Following the focus group, members of the People Working Group condensed some of the main findings of the discussion and gave a presentation to the entire class to guide their thinking. A major focus for the group was to stress the importance of designing with empathy and ensuring that the goals of the class were in line with those of The Working Centre.



  • Nathan (N) - liaison between TWC and Integ 452

  • Joe (J) - current outreach worker with long-term relationships with potential users and community

  • Stuart (S) - former outreach worker; has examined how modular housing could be effective alternatives for people with various mental health concerns)

  • Andrew (A) - former outreach worker; was involved with streets-to-housing program

  • Alex Olarynk (AO) - facilitator

  • Danielle Juneau (D) - notetaker

  • Natasha John (NJ) - notetaker

Meeting Notes

Please note: Names of individuals mentioned during this discussion have not been recorded. They have been replaced by a letter from A-E to maintain confidentiality.

Introductions were given by Nathan and Alex to explain what KI is, what INTEG 452 is, how we connected with TWC, the desire to develop container housing to provide an alternative model to the existing Kitchener housing economy, and the purpose and structure of the focus group.

N: it would be helpful for us to think about specific people. Plumbing, indestructibility etc. These concepts are divided, but we need to get at specific people

N: give us the best you can do

S: The categories of folks depends on how you see the housing goal to be. Ex, people have had housing, but the complicated nature of them makes it difficult to maintain houses. Is it just landlords who are assholes.

A: Hygiene, landlords have specific rules

N: Might be overcome with a compassionate landlord

A: Potentially, might be a concern with danger and health though. Carpeting vs. hard flooring. Help with upkeep is important. A: interactions with neighbours or rules around having guests, he would be happy to invite people into it.

N: we wouldn’t be policing when people could come and go

A: soundproof is important since they maybe yell a lot

N: who is this housing for?

S: you could do this for anybody. Where does the line get drawn; who do we want this to be for. From discussions years ago, the two factors in helping a person maintain housing is there issues and the severity coupled with the contextual nature of the housing but particularly the relationship with the landlord. Mental illness: someone who isn’t going to take meds and fit themselves into society and conform, this by nature has complicated interactions that make it weird for others. Not for them. This is ok because we can work alongside them to help them meet people. Ex: B looked middle class, she maintained some of the things we would call familiar (phenomenal hygiene). From a housing point of view, this is helpful because you can couch some of these behaviours (she would scream) which makes it complicated to stay in housing. She would perceive people as dangerous and vice versa. How would a landlord deal with that. The way you put people together, the logistics of the space, the relationship with the landlord. Sometimes a noise complaint = an eviction.

N: Imagine- TWC is the landlord. These places will be self contained and on TWC property. One of the concepts we want to get into: community will to house people who are living outside downtown in the winter. What are we doing about this group? There is a physical danger of being outside

S: if they can just go to out of the cold, why don’t they?

N: a lot of rules, a lot of people, rules about behaviours

A: Having that many people around

J: The idea of having this unit self contained: campsite sort of idea. Someone living on the fringe of a property which is working for them. How do we create a life that is most comfortable?

AO: those are the ppl outside now?

S: E, B, C, A all sleep pretty rough. Public perceptions of housing: if you are sleeping rough, you are homeless. Many people have found crevices etc that we see as precarious. But they have found and maintained housing. They are not chronically unhousable. The things our economy allows to exist in the housing structure does not work for them. There is a perception that you need to fit into the mold. People just want to be free! Many schizo, etc. are perceived as being dangerous. This is completely untrue. We see people create their own housing in the city. We can see that they maintain their house in a tent, are very safe, coping with their health. This is how they are surviving. C: sleeps in pretty interesting places where he feels safe. Most would see him as dangerous. I you were to work to understand him and to understand that the city : “we are our brothers keeper”. You aren’t responsible but you have a vested interest. They are part of the community. We need to legitimize who they are as our neighbours.

J: We need to remember that people are making decisions based on the circumstances they are in and the options available to them. In the past: people have moved into “stable” housing and things have deteriorated (mentally) very quickly. The street was much better for them. Manifested in many different ways: property damage, drug use etc.

A: D is homeless, sleeping rough, no income for many years. They set up an app for him. He went along with it to make people happy, meeting our needs. He kept it well, was not aggressive. But he just never went there because it wasn’t comfortable for him.

N: Some see it as a waste of resources. I think its ideal because he definitely could go there if he needed to. We want to add this into the possible places people could go even if they don’t use it every day. Does someone pay rent?

J: this is a major barrier for a couple people. Some for religious reasons they don’t accept social assistance. Also, finding a landlord that is suitable. If we could somehow go without rent

N: We are thinking about one container (a pilot)

A: Who would that initial container go to?

N: we've had broad discussions. Having a place that doesn’t share walls, not too loud,

A: one concrete thing that would be a good idea, might not benefit but wouldn’t harm: mattress that could be retracted against the wall. Someone who has been sleeping rough might feel more comfortable sleeping on the ground instead. Also giving them the option for more space.

N: should there be a bed?

A: that would be ideal.

N: single size? How big?

J: Talking about choice: this is based on what we're seeing as someones choice

S: choice always framed in the options

J: bed: the person moving in would make that decision

N: the bed wouldn’t be part of the structure. That would happen later on. A relationship pice and furnishing question. Someones ability to make something their own, choice is important

NJ: what things do you think need to be in every house, and what things would be a choice.

N: you would design a house that hits a bunch of basics. What can be specialized: do you want a chair or not. Problems with being too specific. Lets imagine the structure of a shipping container.

AO: we would want to prioritize local resources.

S: one of my q’s is: where would these things go? Partly predetermining what kinds of materials you use. I think one of the restrictions is who are the people that will live around it? What neighbourhoods? It would do someone a disservice to have their housing so out of the norm that they would again be stigmatized in negative ways. How do we make this housing in a way that we can form relationships with people? Will there be a lot of middle class people? Many might perceive this as strange.

N: part of the design concept that it needs to look nice and sustainable: part 2 of the project

AO: what we got out of our last meeting would be to provide you with 10 ish core design concepts. Blueprints, a drawing, materials available.

NJ: making the technical decisions. Electricity, plumbing, costs. We are trying to narrow that down.

AO: discussing in class about renting a container : but where would we store it. Home hardware to come build.

NJ: building a whole structure isn’t feasible for us. Home depot has grants

S: use what you need. We are going to find the money from our end. Just do it. You will have fun, you’ll learn stuff.

AO: it would be cool to come out with something we have built, we want to make sure that what we are learning form it is helpful to you guys.

J: we have been thinking about this long enough, that what we need is the thing itself. We need the real thing.

A: I would agree. If it is something valuable for your learning, go for it. But I would agree that

S: the problem is doing this for real, you have to zone it, you could say fuck it without plumbing and electricity

AO: is it right to assume that you would go up and talk to someone

J: It would depend on the person. If it were just one, we would need to think of who would be a good fit for a pilot

S: we would definitely just go up to them, and propose the idea. It would look more complex. Some would reject it.

J: if it was already there ready for them, someone would be more willing to try the experience. About zoning:

NJ: city of Kitchener has put up a proposal for changing the rules around garden suites. There are a few people looking at how by-laws would work. What do we want in the house?

S: do we go for the prototype, or the real thing? Only way to build a real thing is if the question of zoning and property available

N: things have changed so well. Think of Louisa house. A spot on dunham that might work. Some of the reason why a shipping container is good: they are available, hacienda gardens have shipping containers.

S: if you have wood, just do that. Shipping containers are indestructible, but you need to deconstruct them. Look at a wooden house esp if you are getting donations

N: Should have plumbing and electricity. For the option of making it their permanent home. We want to make little houses for them. Modular not necessarily we would be constantly moving them around. Construction options would be fantastic.

NJ: we thought you definitely wanted to do shipping containers.

S: do whatever is cheapest

N: the project has progressed toward shipping containers

S: why?

N: conversations, etc. the outside design: has to look nice

NJ: we could add a wooden frame on an outside from an insulation standpoint. We will be adding a roof. Shipping container could be the base.

S: in conversations with other people: sure you could do that, but can complicate things in other ways.

N: hard to keep warm and cool throughout the year.

NJ: definitely a challenge. Doesn’t seem to be models that are in places so cold and hot.

N: you might find the dimensions are great, but the container not so much.

J: like a trailer. Problem with a trailer: needs to be more fixed and robust. There is a potential for things to break.

NJ: for long-term maintenance, we thought plumbing would be difficult. What amenities are must-haves?

N: basic sink and toilet

S: a toilet is a must, even if they don’t use it. Would be a health hazard if they did not.

A: it makes sense if we were able to to make as good of an option as possible. A shower

N: tub?

A: spacewise, a shower would be a good fit. Depends on the space

N: multi-use sink? In my mind, there would be two sinks, but you could have one to serve two purposes

S: saw a guy who built a house from his truck

N: Someone moving into there: two sinks? Would you care

J: depends on the person

S: those are really small personality pieces

J: thinking of what is expected from an apartment this size. A bachelor often just has a hot plate, a fridge, and a sink, you also have a small bathroom with a sink

A: even in the smallest bachelors, there are 2 sinks

J: make it seem as “normal” as possible

N: just because the container is unconventional, they shouldn’t expect the house to be unconventional

A: storage: might not use it, but should have it available. Closet, hooks

AO: help think about specifics. What TWC programs are they drawn to?

N: zero. They were met on the street

S: showers at st johns are big. People are used to conventional housing culturally.

N: this is a good point. Many grew up here, are N.A, have lived indoors at some point in their lives

NJ: what makes being outside so appealing?

J: probably the location makes it attractive, also the isolation component. Not having to deal with all the complications that come with living with others, the rules that we all live by.

A: At least one fairly sizeable window, A really effective blind if they want that privacy and security.

NJ: a window that opens?

All: openable is conventional. And fire code

S: many blind their doors, but you can have multiple windows.

N: ones that open up and down vs a crank. Something solid. I like the idea that you would be able to close and lock the blind

A: some blinds are ineffective, let a lot of light in. adds a feeling of security.

N: a lot of people put blankets over windows for added darkness. Door options?

S: compartmentalized inside? The bathroom for sure.

NJ: table? Counter space

A: No to table (if they want it they’ll decide later), yes to some counter space. Think of an R.V

S: looking at heating and cooling. Look at Africa. They will buy a car, ship it to Africa. They will extend their home or turn it into a place of business with the container. In Ghana the weather fluctuates. No conversations about standards in typical housing literature. Studies about housing preferences for people with mental health issues, they document their reasons. Looking internationally at the way people look at housing. Gave us his report on micro-housing.

S and A left.

N: a door that is lockable.

NJ: do you want a locking mechanism that is conventional?

N: a padlock. Having a door on the side might be better.

J: often I will hold a key. And if it is lost, we will just make another one. Someone would be connected with an outreach worker.

N: interested to see options for cutting a door and framing it onto the side. Might make it look like more of a normal house.

J: having the freedom to have guests. If I am supporting someone where it wasn’t consensual, then I would step in.

AO: if you think of anything else, as you are thinking about things, let us know.

Drawing the pictures they have in their head.

N: clean, indestructible design more than innovation.

AO: a space that can be easily customized.

N: ceiling lighting, with light switches. Boat lighting, outside lighting.

AO: Final thoughts?

J: like talking about how its really going to work

N: we know that you know its important

J: just do it. Heating and cooling is very important. Insulating the inside.

N: things that are cost-effective to fix if they are not indestructible. Think about punching and kicking things, people starting fires, people investigating behind things (paranoia), someone falling over. Extreme cases. There are things you can’t plan for. Not the worlds sharpest corner

J: thinking of a couch and a t.v.

N: the kitchen stuff is less valuable than a living area

J: a motor home design: hotplate, larger bar fridge, cupboards, sink, counter.

N: If we gave a few options, it would be great. Cost figures associated

J: there is a long history of what is an appropriate grant to get. Could work on a grant proposal that we don’t submit, but would submit to them.

N: how much administrative overhead do we want?

J: there are things in the work for this project. Joe and Steph have done a good job of keeping it into the conversation.

N: so much of what were doing is so hands-on. Tends to rate on the important scale. Hard to keep the intangibles going. But I have been keeping this up. Joe is very interested in retrofitting and etc. would love to talk to the construction group. I feel like we are getting close to something practical. Have you managed to walk inside one. You should do that as a class.

The lots: they are brand new. As much as they are popular, this is a pretty out there idea. The neighbourhoods are fine.

On Bunkees: they bleed in together.

J: potential for some on properties.

N: I thought that was happening

J: they have potential to come together. A place that is designed temporarily that works for someone would become his or her permanent home.

NJ: from an energy standpoint: plugging into the grid, or stand alone

N: practically, we are sustainable, solar panels exist at st johns kitchen. We tend to use resources frugally in the sustainability aspect. Solar piece was a partnership. What we want in a container house is that it would be on the grid. Outlets inside is another good reason for drywall.

N: Pets are a yes. Pets are guests. People take a stand on what they will not budge for. Ex: a dog. We are not here to push people into housing. Apartments have a lot more community contracts and norms you need to follow. We will still feel the responsibility of these people. Maintaining a relationship is super important. Joe is a huge bridge between people on the streets and resources for them.

AO: we haven’t had much communication with the community spaces group. What is the 70 Louisa space like?

N: Mostly women have lived there. It is being renovated to be used in cooperation with the extraordinary needs group. It would be staffed. Some communities don’t want anymore social housing projects. You are constantly working to reconcile things. Financial issues with homes and businesses. Takes a community will.

N: We’re designing housing options for a general population.

N: Joes voice is so important in this conversation. He is always conflicted with his job. His ongoing relationship is number one. He has had the best and longest relationships. His ideas are gold.

AO: We want more of an in-depth understanding of the people?

N: Switch perspectives from a user group to a space that will meet the needs of multiple people. The space needs to meet the needs of a bunch of people who share a need for non traditional housing. It would look different for everyone. The design process goes through this discussion of users. Maybe this shift would make you feel more comfortable

N: important to note that the consensus that modular housing is unconventional but that doesn’t mean that modern consensus of what western housing should be. Specific innovations are not necessarily desirable. Logistics for how the building works: but space is super important. Space to change things, freedom to make it your own. Clean, well designed, indestructible. Options are important, even if they don’t use it. Doors are really important.

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