Over the past 10 months, unhoused communities across Canada have dealt with two existential threats: the COVID-19 pandemic and the failure of municipal institutions to meet their housing needs.
In cities like Toronto and Victoria, where city councils are moving slowly to address their unhoused residents, volunteers have organized high-profile supports, including building makeshift homes, only to have those efforts targeted by local bylaw officials and cops via fines, the removal of shelters, and encampment evictions.
“They’re all pointing their fingers at each other and creating this jurisdictional game where people like us and people who are unhoused are like, ‘What the fuck do we do?’” said Gina Mowatt, a 29-year old volunteer in Victoria who supports the city’s unhoused community.
Mowatt said in Victoria, city council passes blame to bylaw and vice versa, making it difficult to achieve official progress. But the problem isn’t limited to the west coast city, and the pushback to grassroots efforts is frustrating volunteers who feel local governments should be doing more to help their homeless populations.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, activists in Canadian cities had urged governments to declare a state of emergency in response to homelessness. Now COVID-19 has resulted in job loss, housing crises, eviction waves, and the deaths of over 12,000 Canadians, making an already desperate situation even worse.
The Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia says that the number of folks who are unhoused in Halifax has more than doubled since last fall. Earlier this year, Ottawa city council declared homelessness in the city a crisis, and since then, a local non-profit estimates that the city’s unhoused population has doubled. Winnipeg drop-in centre network 1JustCity has seen a sharp increase in the number of people accessing their services. As Alberta’s COVID-19 numbers surpass national records and averages, unhoused people in Calgary are fleeing shelters in fear.
Local mutual aid networks, support groups, and individual volunteers have stepped up as a stop-gap response to these circumstances, which many municipalities have failed to mitigate.
They provide clothing, tents, sleeping bags, and sanitary products, call shelter intakes to reserve beds, and build sleeping pods, showers, and tiny shelters to keep people clean and safe, even as bylaw officers and police threaten fines.
Mowatt is part of a network of “random people who heard the call.”
In October, they fundraised to buy materials—sheet metal, two-by-fours, plywood, propane, and a water heater—to build community showers for their neighbours living in Beacon Hill Park.
Supporters hooked up their shower to the same water supply as a handwashing station in the park. But the city shut off the water to both the showers and the handwashing station, citing bylaw infringements. Mowatt said she told bylaw workers that the city was infringing upon United Nations’ human rights law on adequate housing and the UN special rapporteur’s protocol for homeless encampments.
In a statement to VICE World News, City of Victoria spokesperson Bill Eisenhauer said the city cannot allow unpermitted structures in the park, and that volunteers declined to work with the city to “find an alternative solution.”
Mowatt and other supporters moved the showers to another location, and purchased an 800-gallon cistern and pump to supply water. It ran successfully for four days, providing hot showers in Victoria’s cold early winter chill. On the fifth day, police and bylaw blocked entrances to the park, and taped off the showers, which they dismantled along with a nearby community care tent.
“The people living in the park keep each other safe, they keep each other alive,” said Mowatt. “It’s so appalling that the city is then going to tell us, and tell people in the parks, ‘We’re the ones that keep you safe and determine what’s safe for you.’”
Mowatt and others also raised money to provide stipends for a peer-to-peer maintenance program of the showers. City council responded by creating $115,420 in emergency grants for supporting the unhoused community. They encouraged Mowatt and other supporters to apply for the grant before building more showers.
Eisenhauer said that the Salvation Army, the Christian charity which has in the past promoted homophobic views, received $86,520 to establish a mobile shower trailer.
In Toronto, carpenter Khaleel Seivwright experienced resistance from city officials when he tried to house homeless people.
In September, Seivwright, 28, spent $2,000 on construction materials and a generator, hauled them into the Don Valley, and constructed a tiny shelter. Since that first build, he’s continued building tiny shelters to keep his unhoused neighbours safe and warm.
Initially, Seivwright said a city employee contacted him to discuss a potential partnership, and find property on which to place the shelters. Then Janie Romoff, General Manager of Parks, Forestry and Recreation Department, contacted him to let him know the shelters were a bylaw violation, he said.
“She was saying, ‘You’re breaking the city municipal bylaw, and these shelters are gonna be removed without warning, and you may be charged for the cost of the removal,’” said Seivwright.
Romoff’s response shocked Seivwright, especially in the context of the city’s refusal to stop evictions during the pandemic. He said a father and son who were about to be evicted recently contacted him to ask for a shelter.
“You’re increasing the amount of people that are going to need these places,” he said.
City of Toronto spokesperson Diala Homaidan said in a statement that at least one city staff member had met with Seivwright. She confirmed that on November 19, Seivwright was informed via email that the structures weren’t permitted, and said the city has no plans currently “to work with Seivwright to produce and place tiny shelters in the city.”
Homaidan said Parks bylaw prohibits “any camping in City parks, including homeless encampments and there are no tents or structures allowed.”
While Seivwright’s work has been covered by news outlets across the country, he’s uncomfortable being seen as an inspiration.
“To look at a story like this and be like, ‘Oh wow, great news, it feels good,’ it’s like OK, what does that mean?” he said. “Someone was telling me, ‘You shouldn’t even have to exist. There shouldn’t be such a problem that you feel the need to be building these things just to help people not die this winter.’ It’s funny to think it’s inspiring, because really, it’s very sad.”
Elsewhere in downtown Toronto, Encampment Support Network [ESN] volunteer Simone TB, 31, spends her mornings at the Scadding Court homeless encampment, greeting residents as they wake up and checking on their needs.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking to me to see a city care more about profit than people,” said TB, who has been doing this work for six months.
TB and Encampment Support Network have been building sleeping pods for unhoused community members. With two people, she said, you can build a whole pod—equipped with smoke detectors, ventilation, LED lights, and suitable for staying warm in temperatures as low as -15 degrees celsius—in one hour.
But once the bright green pods started cropping up in parks, bylaw officers started leaving notices that the pods were a bylaw violation.
“Not only are people trying to help one another, they’re being criminalized by the city,” said TB.
Citing fires at a structure in Moss Park, Homaidan wrote that encampments can pose “significant risk” to people living outdoors. She suggested that the green pods and other wooden structures were a fire risk, a line repeated by the city. Via the Instagram account @torontotinyshelters, Seivwright has posted multiple fire test videos, including with a credentialed Ontario fire inspector, rejecting this claim.
TB explained that ESN is entirely staffed by volunteers who crowd-fund for the materials and resources they share. She thinks it should be the city’s responsibility to provide these things.
“At the end of the day, the fact that ESN exists is an absolute tragedy,” she said.
“Nobody wants to be doing this, but we also do not want our neighbours to suffer and die.”
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