There are only a few conceivably worse headlines for a municipality’s communications department than “Toronto seeks injunction to stop man from building tiny shelters for the homeless.”
Maybe something like “City stops man from delivering Christmas presents to orphans.” Or “Officials shut down little girls’ lemonade stand for lack of permit.” (Though that actually happened in Ottawa.) Or “City tells families to stop visiting loved ones at long-term-care facility windows.” (That also happened, in Ottawa.)
Toronto’s moment of ignominy comes by way of local carpenter Khaleel Seivwright, who has been building small wooden shelters for homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mr. Seivwright has been collecting funds since the fall through a GoFundMe campaign, which has provided him with the resources to buy materials to build the shelters. Completed structures have been moved to encampments in parks and on other city-owned land, where many homeless people have opted to seek shelter during the pandemic rather than at city-run facilities.
Toronto filed an injunction application on Feb. 12 to stop Mr. Seivwright from placing or relocating his shelters on city-owned land, citing municipal bylaws against erecting structures in public parks. The city also noted a couple of safety concerns with the structures, which is a point municipal communications staff would be smart to emphasize more forcefully: well intentioned as Mr. Seivwright might be, a wooden box with an open flame or propane heater can turn into a death trap within seconds, even if outfitted with smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. (There have been a couple dozen encampment fires in Toronto this year already, including a fatal fire involving a wooden structure that is still under investigation.) The city can’t just turn a blind eye to new, potentially dangerous housing structures in flagrant defiance of municipal bylaws because a local carpenter wanted to help the homeless. And without intervention, the city risks allowing parks to be overtaken by makeshift shelters that will be politically difficult to remove once the pandemic is over.
That said, there are good reasons why people would opt for a tiny wooden shelter in a park over a city-run facility, especially during a pandemic. The shelters have been particularly vulnerable to contagion (10 are currently experiencing outbreaks, according to the latest published data from the city), and most operate at, or near, capacity. The fast food restaurants and cafés that would normally offer some respite to people looking to escape the cold are open only for takeout and delivery.
All three levels of government have tried to develop programs to deal with the unique challenges of homelessness during a pandemic. Last year the federal government announced its new Rapid Housing Initiative, which allocates $1-billion – $500-million immediately to municipalities, and $500-million for new projects – to create up to 3,000 permanent affordable housing units. Ontario froze rents for 2020 and paused evictions since the pandemic began last spring, and allocated a couple hundred million to upgrade and expand shelters and offer rent support. It also just approved priority access to vaccines for homeless Torontonians. The City of Toronto opened a dedicated isolation facility for homeless people who test positive for COVID-19, as well as dozens of new shelter and temporary housing facilities, and two new modular housing buildings.
But these efforts still are not fast enough or comprehensive enough to provide safe housing for everyone during the pandemic winter. New projects approved under the federal government’s program have a completion deadline of December, 2021, which doesn’t help get people off the streets now. Ontario’s pause on evictions does not preclude eviction orders from being issued, meaning there could be an enforcement tsunami when stay-at-home-orders lift. Toronto’s efforts to open new shelters or low-income housing has routinely been met with resistance by neighbourhood locals, including those who protested against a hotel-turned-shelter in midtown Toronto in the summer and a group of east-end residents who gathered this past weekend to object to plans for a new modular housing site in their community.
We know that to address homelessness meaningfully the solutions need to be comprehensive and sustainable – ideally, with supports that go beyond a bed and a roof – but that approach takes time. That’s why tiny shelters might have seemed like the best short-term solution in concept, if perhaps not in execution.
An innovative city might have partnered with Mr. Seivwright (who says that the city did, in fact, talk to him about a possible partnership before serving him with an injunction) to create safer small shelters to see Toronto’s homeless population through the remainder of the winter. The program would necessarily be temporary – established from the get-go as a limited emergency measure for safe isolation during COVID-19 – after which time more long-term housing options should be available.
But Toronto’s crackdown on vigilante shelter-creation suggests the city is uninterested in the unconventional, and instead is focused on pursuing sustainable, long-term solutions. That’s the right approach for addressing homelessness in normal times, but won’t help now – or, for that matter, the city’s public relations problem.
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