He Built Homes for the Homeless. So the City Sued Him

Toronto carpenter Khaleel Seivwright has been building ‘tiny shelters’ for the city’s many homeless people. The city says they are dangerous. He says the city is doing nothing to help the unhoused.
February 23, 2021, 6:18pm
Toronto carpenter Khaleel Seivwright ​seen in a video released this week.
Toronto carpenter Khaleel Seivwright seen in a video released this week. Image via YouTube/Khaleel Seivwright

A Toronto carpenter, whose work to build miniature, winterized shelters for the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic has received immense public support, is speaking out after the city requested an injunction against further construction of the shelters. 

In a written statement and video published Monday, Khaleel Seivwright called out the city for its “terrible” reputation in providing shelter to the unhoused, and said the move to proceed with legal action is a “distraction” from the city’s own failures at taking care of its most at-risk populations.

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“The problem is not the tiny shelters. The problem is that Toronto’s most vulnerable people are falling through the cracks,” Seivwright said, adding that unhoused people have told him they have “nowhere to go” and they “no longer trust” the city’s shelter system.

“The City of Toronto should drop its application against me and focus its resources and efforts on what matters—getting people safely housed.”

The injunction, which the city applied for through the Ontario Court of Appeals on February 12, cited the potential for the mainly wooden structures to catch fire, and the deterrent effect the shelters may have on getting people out of encampments and into city-run housing facilities, as reasons for it to be granted. 

In a press release last week, the city said there has been a 250 percent increase in the number of emergency calls related to encampment fires made between 2019 and 2020, arguing that makeshift shelters were one of the leading causes of the increase. 

“Fires in encampments pose not only a danger to those living in encampments, but also to first responders and the broader community,” the release said, which made note of a fire last week that claimed the life of one man living inside a makeshift shelter.

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Brad Ross, spokesperson for the City of Toronto, told VICE World News the injunction is simply seeking to affirm an existing parks bylaw, which prohibits “illegal” structures (including tents and structures like the ones made by Seivwright) from being constructed on green spaces sidewalks, roads, and other city property.

When asked about the competing narrative between the city and activists, with one side claiming there’s plenty of room in shelters and the other claiming that shelters are overrun, Ross admitted the current emergency shelter system is running near maximum capacity. 

“Is the capacity in the emergency shelter system very high? Absolutely it is,” Ross said. The ultimate goal is to get people permanent housing through the city’s Streets to Homes program, and the encampments complicate that transition, Ross said.

“Respite is an emergency housing solution; it is not a permanent housing solution.”

Simone Schmidt, a co-founder and member of Encampment Support Network—a civilian-run outreach organization formed in May 2020 to help Toronto’s homeless residents—said the city is choosing to ignore the obvious benefits of the tiny shelters in favour of pushing through its own housing plans.

“People are dying all over the place at city-run facilities,” Schmidt said, adding the recent explosion of COVID-19 cases in the city’s shelter system is another threat among a long list of things that have kept many unhoused individuals choosing outdoor encampments over temporary shelter indoors.

“It’s painful to see the city weaponize the (threat of fire) against the life-saving capacity that tiny shelters have, because the amount of lives that they have saved is huge at this point.”

Seivwright, through his legal team, declined to comment to VICE World News due to the ongoing dispute with the city.

Follow Jake Kivanç on Twitter.