Astum Api Niikinaahk: Winnipeg’s tiny homes project getting ready to welcome its first residents

Melissa Stone hopes the future residents of Astum Api Niikinaahk feel a range of emotions as they move into the spaces she’s helped create for them as part of their transition out of homelessness.

Those emotions include “happy” and “loved,” and, above all, “safe.”

“Safety is No. 1 for individuals,” said Stone, the program co-ordinator for the village of tiny homes nearing the end of construction on land adjacent to Thunderbird House at the corner of Henry Avenue and Austin Street.

Its name means “come and sit at our home” in Cree and Michif, Stone says.

After more than a year of delays caused by the pandemic and related construction complications, the 22 units of low-barrier transitional housing are set to welcome their first residents. 

Stone got a glimpse of that reaction when one of the tenants came to view the suites last week.

“He’s been wanting to live here for a while and he was just ecstatic that he would have a place to have a shower,” Stone said.

“And he couldn’t believe that there was going to be air conditioning here so he didn’t have to sweat in his tent in the encampments anymore, and that it would be fenced in and he would feel safe.”

‘Everything that folks need’

That fence is the last remaining piece of the project left to be completed. Stone hopes to have it finished in time to begin moving people in starting Dec. 1.

Partnering agencies — led by Ma Mawi Wii Chi Itata Centre, along with End Homelessness Winnipeg, Thunderbird House, Ka Ni Kanichihk, the Eagle Urban Transition Centre, and the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg — consulted with community members who had experienced homelessness about what they wanted in the space.

Repeatedly, they heard residents say they wanted to feel secure, but they didn’t want the space to look “institutionalized,” Stone said. 

The gates at the main entrance on Henry Avenue will look like the silhouette of a buffalo on the prairie. 

A woman is standing in a kitchen.
Project co-ordinator Melissa Stone stands in the kitchen of one of the units. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

The doors of the tiny houses run along the edges of the property facing inward on a courtyard, which includes space for a sacred fire and, eventually, a 10-person sweat lodge.

There are 18 bachelor-style units 170 square feet in size, and four 400-square-foot units accessible to people who use mobility devices such as wheelchairs.

Thanks to donations from the Kinsmen Club of Winnipeg, Stone said, every unit comes fully furnished and stocked with basic appliances and supplies, including a bed, bathroom, kitchen with a two-burner stove, microwave and coffee maker.

“Everything that folks need to live independently, so anyone that’s living unsheltered can just come with what they have on them and everything is here for them,” Stone said.

A large triangular shaped building with a long jutting roof and high windows is shown in the foreground, and fence posts can be seen in the background.
A fence and gate are the only components still under construction at Astum Api Niikinaahk. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

Inside main the gates, a row of rocks arranged in a semi-circle surround the front of the main building. Through the front door is a large room with a high ceiling, where residents can participate in programming based on traditional Indigenous practices.

Programs will help participants deal with issues including hoarding and feelings of shame, Stone said.

“Folks that leave the streets have built a family there, and when they move into a home where it’s their own they feel shame because their friends are still out there,” she said.

A large room with a high ceiling is shown in this picture.
The large room inside the main building of Astum Api Niikinaahk will serve as a space for programming for the residents. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

Health and wellness

Stone opens a door off to the side of the main room and the powerful smell of traditional medicines fills the air. Herbs tied in bundles hang around the ceiling of the small, round room where residents will be able to speak one-on-one with Darren Parenteaux, the project’s cultural mentor.

“I’m looking forward to working with the relatives that are coming here, and I want to show them my teachings and pass it on to them ” Parenteaux said.

“That’s my main goal, is to be with them and talking with them and giving them if they need the spiritual advice, although I will sit there and give it to them.”

Dried herbs hang in bunches from the ceiling of a small round room.
A round room in the main building is fully stocked with traditional Indigenous medicines. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

Down a hallway, past a large kitchen, Stone opens another door to a bright, white room that will be the medical centre.

Currently, the only equipment is a scale, but soon it will include a medical bed and other supplies. 

Dr. Barry Lavallee will run a managed alcohol program, and the centre will also have nurse practitioners from the Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre on hand to provide services, such as a foot clinic, and dispense medication, Stone said. 

No time limits

Operating costs, funded by the United Way, End Homelessness Winnipeg, and the provincial government, are expected to be between $800,000 and $900,000 a year.

The units are open to all adults, and prospective tenants will be referred from the partnering agencies.

Although the programming is based in Indigenous culture, residents do not need to identify as Indigenous to qualify for housing.

Residents can stay in their units for as long as they want, Stone said.

“Everybody heals in their own way … so if someone wants to stay here for five years, then they’ll stay here for five years,” she said.

“If they feel like they’re ready and want to leave [Astum Api Niikinaahk] we will support them in making sure that their transition … is the best that we can do.”

Delays and increased costs

The project had originally been slated to open in fall 2021 at a cost of $5.8 million. However, a number of challenges, including contractors getting sick with COVID-19, pushed back its opening date and bumped up the costs “by millions,” Stone said.

The federal Rapid Housing Initiative provided a portion of the funding for the construction.

Stone couldn’t provide the final cost figure or how much residents would pay to stay in the units, because the capital construction project’s primary funders, the Manitoba and federal governments, had not made their formal announcement.

A spokesperson for Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which administers Rapid Housing Initiative funding, said the agency was not prepared make a formal announcement because the project was not yet complete. 

The Manitoba government did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.

A row of houses with green and blue doors is shown in this picture.
There are 22 units available at Astum Api Niikinaahk. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

The City of Winnipeg is not a partner in the project. Stone had originally hoped to build the project on city-owned land along Higgins Avenue, but zoning rules at the time would not allow it.

“Fortunately, the proponent was able to find a suitable site and partner using lands located near the downtown and already zoned for residential development,” city spokesperson Kalen Qually wrote in an email.

Since then, the city has changed its planning policies, “which would allow for additional residential uses on land” in North and South Point Douglas, where the Higgins site is located, Qually said.

During the recent municipal election, Mayor Scott Gillingham proposed using city-owned land to for modular housing for the homeless.

Stone said she hopes she and the city can partner on another phase of the project in the future.

For now, she says, work continues to finish the project in order to welcome 22 individuals and invite them to come and sit in their homes.