NAPANEE — Behind his house, in an otherwise industrial area near downtown Napanee, Scott Drader oversees perhaps the town’s most controversial dwellings. Five camping trailers, with various ad-hoc add-ons and plywood repairs, form a square in his backyard. In the middle, an unplugged microwave sits next to an old tree stump.
“Yes, I admit they look ugly,” says Drader of the trailers on a cold afternoon in mid-December. “But they’ve served their purpose.”
For nearly two years, Drader has offered up his property to the town’s homeless and outcast. Initially, he put a trailer on the lawn for his mother. Then, in March 2018, after she had to move into supportive housing, Drader welcomed two transgender youth who couldn’t find affordable housing elsewhere. Since then, he figures, roughly 100 people have stayed on his property — some for a night, others for months at a time.
Christa Middleton, 39, has been living on Drader’s property — first in a tent, and now in a trailer — almost since the beginning. On this windy day, Middleton hammers nails into a wooden frame outside her door, hangs a tarp on the nails, and goes inside. She reappears to announce that her makeshift wind curtain is a success.
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“I don’t care what it looks like,” she says. “I just want to stay warm.”
Increasingly, though, it seems likely she’ll need to stay warm elsewhere. Drader’s property is not zoned to be used as a pop-up trailer park. After numerous warnings from the municipality, including threats of legal action, he has been given a final ultimatum. Drader says he’s been told by McCutcheon Insurance that he must remove the trailers from his yard by December 29 or his house will no longer be covered.
“If I lose my insurance, the very next day, the mortgage holders will be taking over my place,” says Drader. He says he has room for some of his tenants inside his house, but the others will be left on their own. “As far as renting a place, they’ve all burned their bridges and they won't be able to get housing in Napanee. So they will be on the street no matter what.”
A representative from McCutcheon would not confirm this version of the events, nor would they confirm that Drader is a customer.
Currently there are nine long-term tenants, with another handful that stay on the property in bad weather. Though the trailers are heated, Drader also offers up his basement and bathroom when necessary. He typically charges $390 per month to stay on the property but is flexible depending on a person’s financial situation. Drader says the rent he collects allows him to pay off his debt (he says he has multiple mortgages on the house and is still paying off more than $15,000 worth of trailers) and cover increased electricity costs.
That Drader is charging people to live in trailers — and advertises on social media — has raised eyebrows among Napanee’s 15,000 residents. Two months after he set up the trailers, lawyers representing the Town of Greater Napanee first served notice that the operation was in violation of zoning bylaws.
“Continuing to allow your property to be used as residential accommodation is not an option. The accommodation being provided is not legal under the zoning bylaw, is not adequate for the needs of the people being housed and poses both short- and long-term safety concerns,” a letter from the lawyers stated.
Since that June 2018 letter, Drader and the municipality have been in discussions about what to do with the site and its inhabitants. From the municipality’s perspective, it’s quite straightforward: Drader’s operation is illegal.
“From the town’s point of view, he was not in compliance. The site is not zoned for what he is doing,” says Brandt Zatterberg, general manager of community and corporate services for Napanee.
Last month, the town told Drader to stop using his property as a de facto trailer park, giving him until November 25 to remove the trailers. That date has come and gone, but the trailers remain. Zatterberg says situations like this — in which someone tries to rent out a trailer on their property — isn’t totally uncommon. It’s the scale of Drader’s operation, in addition to its notoriety, that forced the town to take action.
“We’ve dealt with similar things, just not on this scale,” says Zatterberg. “His situation is one that was growing and not stopping, and we needed to act.”
In addition to the zoning non-compliance, Zatterberg says that the town has received complaints about garbage and the ad-hoc construction of porches and steps on Drader’s trailers.
Though Drader has remained defiant with the town, he’s not willing to take on his insurance company. Though he understands their position, Drader says it’s a sad way to ring in the holiday season.
“There’s been some sleepless nights, trying to figure out what I can do,” he says. “These people are like family. They’ve been here for a long time. And some of them — I was their last chance.”
Middleton plans to move the trailer she’s been renting — with Drader’s blessing — off the property to a new location. Some will stay in Drader’s house. Others, like 50-year-old Michelle Irish, who moved into a trailer earlier this month, she says, on the recommendation of an OPP officer, don’t know where they will go next. Irish, who worked for 12 years as a sous chef before a hip replacement forced her out of work, says her $696 per month in social assistance is not enough to cover rent in an increasingly expensive Napanee housing market.
“So, yeah, I’ll be on the street,” she says. “And once you’re down, holy, it’s really hard to get back up.”
Irish isn’t the first person to have been referred to the property by a public employee. Lynn Chenier, director of Prince Edward-Lennox & Addington Social Services, says that some case workers in Napanee may have referred people to Drader's in the past. Now, though, Prince Edward County is focused on finding more suitable, long-term housing. In the short-term, Chenier notes that the town's warming centre opened this week, which can provide overnight shelter during the cold winter months. "We reached out to those who we thought we could help. Some people chose to accept our help, some people didn't," says Chenier. "We're here if anyone wants or needs to use our services."
"What Scott is trying to do is very admirable. And it takes a lot of work. But it doesn't replace social housing," she says.
Town council is not optimistic that a solution can be found. “I’m the same as everyone else on council,” says John McCormack, councillor for Ward 1. “We would obviously like more solutions for homelessness. But this location does not lend itself to a solution, in my opinion.”
Shaune Lucas, the former councillor for Ward 5 (which includes Drader’s property), says the town could look the other way. He says that others contravene bylaws, but Drader seems to be the only one facing any repercussions.
“I am positive that we have illegal seasonal cottages, illegal trailers elsewhere,” says Lucas. “Yes, he’s operating illegally, but so are other people in the community. Why single him out?”
Drader’s situation has shone a light on homelessness in Napanee. Local news coverage of Drader’s property has kept the story alive for 18 months. There have been numerous council debates, and a glance through the Greater Napanee Ratepayers’ Association Facebook page shows a community divided over the town’s handling of the situation. “You talk to four different people, and you’ll get four different perspectives on Scott,” says Lucas. “But if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Zatterberg agrees the conversation is important. “This is not an issue we’re dealing with alone in the province,” he says. “There seems to be an uptick in homelessness. What we’re seeing, I think, is that as a small municipality, we need some help.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.
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