Often elaborate, constructed from repurposed detritus, bits of scrapyard refuse, plastic sheeting, milk cartons, discarded mattresses, layers of threadbare blankets. Somebody else’s tossed away junk.
For better or worse: home.
In front of St. Michael’s Hospital, a man has co-opted pylons from a nearby construction site, to delineate his space.
And of course, here and there, under the Gardiner Expressway, almost a semi-permanent address, one fellow such a long-time “resident” that his name and quotes can be found in media archives dating back several years. Roust him during occasional removal sweeps by the city and he’ll return in a few days time, ingeniously recreating his one-man encampment, complete with propane heater.
Many of these poor souls have fallen through the social welfare cracks; others dove into the crevices by route of addictions, alcoholism and mental illness. So much mental illness untreated, a generational consequence of decisions made by various levels of government but most especially Queen’s Park under premier Mike Harris’s downloading schemes in the mid-’90s — downloaded to the amalgamated metropolis.
Yet the Doug Ford administration appears to have gouged deeper, as per campaign promises to cut the deficit. Crunching available numbers, the Ontario Health Coalition cites a figure of $22 billion that will disappear from funding for public health services and programs over the next three to four years.
It’s cold out here and getting colder.
Over the past week, three homeless individuals died in Toronto, says the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, which on Thursday staged another rally demanding action from all levels of government to alleviate the urgent housing crisis.
There was Crystal Papineau, apparently trapped inside a clothing donations near Dovercourt and Bloor, where she may have been scrounging for items to sell, which is a common practice among the indigent. Another female, not yet identified by police, was struck and killed by a truck backing up into an alley in the area of York and Adelaide Sts. where she had been spotted sleeping over several nights. Sanctuary Ministries has confirmed that a third person, an Indigenous male around 25 to 30 years of age, died as well, around the same time in another laneway, though this death has not yet appeared on any police blotter that I could find.
The Star’s Emily Mathieu reported that the city’s 4,430 emergency beds for women, men and youth were nearly full last Thursday — according to city data — in the midst of Toronto’s first cold weather alert of 2019. A block of about 2,850 beds and hotels and motels, added to the stock to alleviate strain on the system, were 85 per cent full. An additional 1,034 people sought shelter inside drop-ins, the warming centre at Metro Hall, and three Out of the Cold program locations.
It requires only an eyes-on glance to grasp that the homeless population is ever-increasing. Last April, Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen De Villa, revealed the findings of the city’s inaugural death data compilation — at least 100 people had died in 2017.
This is down to us, everyone who calls Toronto home and why poverty activists are urging that a further 2,000 shelter and respite beds be opened immediately.
Even if that were possible — and there’s no indication it will happen — the underlying reasons for homelessness are so diverse and complicated to address, no matter how well-intentioned the steps which have been already taken, the slapdash emergency response and the tireless efforts of the housing activist community.
Much hand-wringing ensued after the death of Papineau, rightly so, but the emphasis on donation bins as a cause — at least eight deaths since 2015, The Canadian Press has reported — are not the core issue, even as manufacturers promise to correct the death-trap risk by redesign, a long-term undertaking.
Yet there were details about the Papineau tragedy that weren’t reported amidst the grieving by her friends and social agency advocates, contributing factors which convolute the blame-game.
Papineau, 35, had essentially been banned, temporarily, by Sistering, a women’s 24/7 drop-in where she’d been a regular client. Administrators don’t like to speak of it but Papineau had recently been violent, assaulting other women and causing a problem on the shelter side of the facility.
“She was on what we call a respite,” explains Patricia O’Connell, executive director. “She had hit so many people, it had become really bad.”
But O’Connell emphasizes that Papineau was still able to access the “full support services” available through Sistering, with her regular team.
Papineau had been last seen sitting on the steps outside around 2 a.m. Thursday, before telling friends she was off to search for items in a collection bin, what O’Connell describes as “goodies” that homeless women collect for sale, to make a bit of money.
This is certainly not meant to blame Sistering, which does the work of angels. But Papineau was well-known for her addiction problems and, at some point, the greater good must be put first. Violence is hardly uncommon among those struggling with alcohol and drug dependency. The safety of others became paramount in this case.
Homelessness can be the outcome of addiction and mental illness or those ills can lead to a ramshackle life on the streets. Some hard-core homeless will only come in from the cold sporadically because they fear the tumult and thieving at shelters. Or simply because they are remarkably self-sufficient and will not be coerced into the shelter system.
Everyone has the right to make their own decisions. But where does our collective responsibility lie? What of a city’s competing interest to not look so shabby and implicated in the deterioration of shared public space?
Every so often, when the overtly visible encrustation of squalid encampments is deemed too much of an eyesore — or, purportedly, out of concern for the inhabitants — other parts of the city’s intervention apparatus step in.
Beginning last week, staff have been warning encampment denizens in some downtown priority areas that their self-constructed shelters will be dismantled with 14 days of eviction notice delivered. As of this past Wednesday, eight notices had been issues, says city spokesperson Brad Ross.
Yet Ross claims there’s “no D-Day” for removal of the designated tents and haphazard camps.
“You can’t camp in a city park so you can’t camp on other city proper either. There are bylaws against it.”
There’s a risk to their own safety because some have propane heaters. In some areas, they encroach on the sidewalk and people have to walk around them.
At the same time, the city is working with those affected to access the Streets to Homes program and other shelter accommodation. “Frankly, there is space at the shelters,” says Ross. “I do appreciate that it’s not the permanent housing people want. Hopefully, some people actually take us up on the services offered. Maybe they won’t but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.”
We know, however, that these occasional root-out ventures are stopgap measures — expensive “whack-a-mole mobilizing by city forces, as critics call it — and quickly undone. According to the city’s Transportation Services, staff cleared out encampments under the elevation portion of the Gardiner Expressway at Spadina Avenue four times last summer. Each time it cost the city about $3,500 for that one location alone.
Where to go, though, where to go? Unlike shelters, a self-reliant encampment doesn’t turn out residents during daytime hours to shuffle along city streets or huddle in parks and doorways.
They’re as close to a foothold of permanency and ownership that too many chronically homeless in Toronto will ever know.
Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno