As winter decends, what happens to Toronto's homeless encampments?

Public spaces have become a means of survival for Toronto's homeless residents who have set up encampments in city parks. With a Canadian winter approaching, what can be done to help Toronto's homeless community?

As winter descends, what happens to Toronto's homeless encampments?

Public spaces have become a means of survival for Toronto's homeless residents who have set up encampments in city parks. With a Canadian winter approaching, what can be done to help Toronto's homeless community?

A walk through the Alexandra Park neighbourhood, located near Dundas and Bathurst streets, reveals 30 to 50 tents of varying sizes that have been set up around the grounds. Moss Park, Trinity Bellwoods Park and Allan Gardens are similar public spaces that have become a means of survival for hundreds of people experiencing homelessness in Toronto.

The city's homelessness crisis is not new. In the last five years, the number of people using Toronto shelters has increased by 69 per cent, according to a 2019 report from the Toronto Foundation. Problems affecting the homeless community have only compounded during the pandemic due to a lack of social support from both the provincial and federal governments.

"The pandemic has amplified the homelessness crisis that we were already facing. And it's not just that we've got a homeless crisis, we also have an affordable housing crisis," said New Democratic Party member of provincial parliament Chris Glover, who represents Spadina-Fort York.

What's more, Ryerson has a responsibility to address the issue of homelessness as it relates to their campus, said Cristal Hines, a community organizer and alumni of Ryerson's social work program.

In preparation for winter, the City of Toronto announced on Oct. 6 that "the shelter system will provide more than 6,700 spaces through the city's base shelter system and approximately 560 new spaces." This is a 15 per cent increase from last year's 485 new spaces.

"Creating 560 new spots seems like a lot, until you realize that conservative estimates from frontline workers suggest that at least 1,000 to 1,500 people currently live outside in Toronto," said Marianna Reis, a spokesperson for the Encampment Support Network Toronto (ESN), in a written statement to The Eyeopener.

Most shelters won't open until December when temperatures drop below freezing. "It's too little, too late," she said. "In the meantime, people will die outside."

One hundred new spaces were opened on Nov. 3 at Toronto's Better Living Centre. However, residents claim they lack privacy and that conditions are "inhumane," alleging lights are left on 24/7 and only cold water is available for showers.

"Housing advocates and workers have been pushing since March, and years before, for plans that were dignified and appropriate and, in this season, that are COVID-safe," said Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Toronto.

"In a time where we are told to stay home and isolate, the City of Toronto is putting vulnerable people in congregate settings and expecting them to feel safe, dignified and supported."

"The Better Living Centre is a COVID concentration camp, to put it briefly," said Domenico Saxida, a resident at Scadding Court encampments during ESN's anti-eviction press conference on Nov. 8. "I'm not going to an environment where social distancing is an issue."

"I will not be intimidated by the police or the government. I'm not moving, I have the right to stay and to choose."

The Better Living Centre did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

Reis said she and fellow ESN volunteers "are terrified" for winter and "disturbed" by Toronto's apathy to the issue. "In order for the city to develop a winter plan that meets the needs of encampment residents, they need to actually come out to encampments regularly and listen to the people living in them," she said.

On Oct. 21, Ontario Superior Court of Justice Paul Schabas struck down a motion to override a bylaw banning people experiencing homelessness from living in parks.

"Parks are public resources, intended to be available and used by everyone. This is particularly the case during the pandemic when outdoor spaces are needed for people to meet and engage...the encampments impair the use of parks by others," Schabas said.

"We anticipate that the city will ramp up its efforts to evict encampment residents and coercively relocate them to shelter-hotels and other temporary shelter sites," said Reis.

Most recently, the city began posting notices of removal onto foam domes at Moss Park, according to a Nov. 20 release from ESN. The insulated, foam-based sleep structures were constructed by ESN with other encampment support groups and community members in order to brace for colder weather. According to ESN, these structures retain warmth without relying on extra heating sources, unlike tents, which community members may keep warm through hazardous means like candles and heaters.

On Nov. 21, CBC reported that Khaleel Seivwright—a Toronto carpenter who is building tiny, insulated, mobile shelters for unhoused people ahead of winter—received a warning letter from the City of Toronto, threatening legal action if the structures remained on public property.

Seivwright told CBC he still intends on building the structures on private property. "Since the city refuses to provide enough shelter for everyone living outside, and refuses to provide humane living conditions in the spaces it offers, the least it could do is stop criminalizing people's efforts to survive," ESN wrote in their statement.

What can students do to help?

The city of Toronto's waitlist for subsidized housing currently stands at 79,700. What can students do to help? "I think Ryerson is very much complicit in trying to undermine and minimize its capacity as an institution in helping to support this problem," Hines said.

Since large potted plants were installed outside of Victoria Street's Tim Hortons two years ago, Ryerson has been accused of utilizing hostile architecture to deter people experiencing homelessness from being on campus.

Hostile architecture is the intentional design of public features, like benches or barriers, to restrict behaviour like sleeping or loitering, according to the Canadian Journal of Urban Research.

According to Ryerson's office of Facilities, Management and Development (FMD), the potted plants were installed by the City of Toronto. "The university did not initiate, execute or take part in the installation of these planters," the FMD office said in a written statement to The Eye.

More recently, Ryerson received backlash for
Ryerson is also involved with Furthering Our Community by Uniting Services (FOCUS), an "initiative for community safety" led by the city, United Way and the Toronto Police Service. The partnership provides "immediate coordinated support and aims to reduce crime, victimization and harm," according to a
Ryerson Works article.

Rather than reduce their offerings to solve the issue of homelessness, Hines said she thinks Ryerson should lean into its own internal and external resources. "[The university] has social work students, architecture students, people and professors who have the expertise and the help support these problems," she said. The university's relationship with the City of Toronto should also be leveraged, she said. "Ryerson has the capacity to come up with a holistic plan [for the winter] to support the homeless community."

Glover suggested students help through advocating for the homeless community.

"The more pressure on this government to actually take steps to address this housing crisis, the less likely they are to delay," said Glover, adding that more funding should go to agencies providing immediate relief to those experiencing homelessness.

"Be proactive about welcoming encampment residents in your neighbourhoods—they are your neighbours too! Talk to and educate your housed neighbours and friends about the issues," said Reis. "Respectfully offer encampment residents the material support to fulfill their basic needs and, if possible, organize locally with your peers and neighbours to provide more coordinated support."

"The neighbours have all been awesome," said Saxida who added that it has been "volunteers and the community" supporting encampment residents by providing essentials like "tents, food, water and clothing."