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Toronto takes carpenter behind tiny shelters for homeless people to court

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A tiny wooden shelter with a window and a lock on the door. Image: courtesy of Khaleel Seivwright from his website

In my January blog I described the committed work of carpenter Khaleel Seivwright to provide shelters for homeless people in Toronto. Alarmed at the obvious housing and shelter crisis and growing number of people trying to survive outside, he began building tiny wooden shelters that were insulated and secure. Placed in various parts of Toronto, primarily in parks, they have been well received.

The city of Toronto has not been pleased. In November the city asked Khaleel to stop his builds, indicating the tiny shelters were preventing their work of moving people indoors. City workers were directed to remove several and they were carted away and presumably destroyed. Khaleel was also threatened with the costs of the city's removal of the structures. City officials, in particular fire officials, continued to cite fire risk as a reason they should not be allowed.

Many feel it is really Toronto Mayor John Tory who is threatened by the ongoing activism of Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, the Shelter and Housing Justice Network, the Encampment Support Network and Khaleel Seivwright. Their advocacy successfully presents the evidence of the Tory administration's big fail on homelessness.

The Beaverton, a news satire publication nicely captured that tension.

On February 12 the city applied for an injunction at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to stop the building and placing of the structures on city-owned land. Khaleel was served with the notice.

Of note, in October the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty along with a group of people who had been homeless lost a court case that would have prevented Toronto from enforcing its prohibition of tents in city parks.

On February 22, Khaleel issued a public statement on YouTube.

It is also available here to read. 

Homeless people have provided their voice in a video on the difference the tiny shelters made in their life. The stories are remarkable.

Outreach workers estimate between 1,000 and 1,500 people are trying to survive outdoors. Some are in encampments; some are solo seeking shelter away from others. The city continues to insist shelter is available for those who wish it.

Note: their media spin doctors and bureaucrats have been saying that the entire length of my 30-plus years as a street nurse, despite evidence to the contrary.

As Victoria Gibson reported in the Toronto Star on February 22: "City statistics show men's emergency shelters in Toronto on the night of Feb. 21 were at 99.7 per cent capacity; women's emergency shelters were at 99.1 per cent; mixed adult emergency sites at 87.4 per cent; and 24-hour respite sites across the city were at 98.9 per cent."

In Khaleel's words:

"The city of Toronto should drop its application against me and focus its resources and efforts on what matters -- getting people safely housed. It's February. The city should not be removing or destroying tiny shelters until real alternatives exist and COVID-19 is under control."

My thoughts: the city should also get their act together and provide safe shelter and vaccinations now. As of today, there are nine COVID outbreaks in city shelters with 149 cases. Alarmingly, 29 cases of a variant of concern have been diagnosed in a Salvation Army shelter. Another homeless person succumbed to COVID at a shelter/referral centre last week. Congregate shelters must be evacuated. There is no other way to say it. People must be moved into well-staffed shelter/hotels for protection.

Given the choice of a dormitory room in a shelter where a COVID variant is aggressively stalking its victims or an alternative like a tiny shelter with a lock on the door I know what I would choose.

Cathy Crowe is a street nurse, author and filmmaker who works nationally and locally on health and social justice issues.

Image: courtesy of Khaleel Seivwright from his website

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