Breaking Camp at Tent City

On the morning of September 24, 2002, 125 people who had established a makeshift community on disused industrial land on the edge of the Toronto harbour were, after a long and well-publicized struggle, finally evicted. Located on a site that falls within the area being studied as part of Toronto’s extensive waterfront redevelopment plans, Tent City had been occupied since 17 people pitched tents there in January 1998. In the intervening time the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC) negotiated with City authorities to allow the residents to stay and to provide housing and services in the form of trailers, Durakit homes, portable latrines, water, and wood stoves until a new location could be found.

While the TDRC negotiated to find another site, public health officials warned of the dangers of living on contaminated soil, especially for two babies conceived there. The portable toilets were not adequate for the numbers, there was no consistent garbage collection or availability of electricity, and water supply was intermittent–conditions normally associated with third world shantytowns.

The owners of the property, Home Depot–whose application to build a big box store on the site had been rejected by City Council–had tolerated the occupants’ presence, tacitly recognizing their needs by granting permission for Durakit homes to be delivered to the site. Finally, however, Home Depot–a retail giant whose business is, ironically, serving the thriving do-it-yourself home improvement market–moved to evict the residents, citing the health risks enumerated above as their prime motivation.

Although the City arranged for representatives from local shelters to be on hand to advise the residents, the sexually segregated shelter system proved inadequate for couples, for people with pets and for the sheer numbers of the displaced.

The situation helped illustrate that temporary shelters are not a solution to homelessness. Shelters are intended to be, and are at best, a short-term solution. Life in the shelters entails daily line-ups for up to three hours with no guarantee of a place at the end, lack of privacy and independence, the imposition of a regime and the risk of theft and disease. After a night on a mat on the floor with dozens of others in a lit room, occupants are turned out the following morning with all their belongings. Seeking to escape this nomadic cycle, residents of Tent City attempted to establish a long-term home, a place of one’s own, not just a mat for the night.

Since the eviction, public pressure and negotiations by the TDRC have resulted in the Ontario government, in partnership with the City, agreeing to allocate funds boosting the welfare housing allowance of $325 to a maximum of $875 per month. The City has offered to guarantee the first and last month’s rent. Cathy Crowe, a spokesperson and tireless activist for the TDRC, acknowledges that this has helped put former Tent City residents in homes; so far 10 have found housing through this measure. However, she points out that the rent subsidy scheme fails to provide bricks and mortar for new affordable housing projects. Furthermore, this allocation is part of a one-year pilot scheme that has committed $6 million to assist 1,000 tenants to meet their rent payments. While this is a substantial amount, the program will provide temporary relief but contribute no permanent solution.

The widely-publicized evictions from Tent City have meant that the needs of its 125 displaced residents have had to be addressed immediately, but these measures do not take into account the growing number of homeless across the country. It is estimated that on any given night last winter, more than 5,000 people occupied shelters in Toronto, with another 1,000-1,500 sleeping rough.

The fact that the Tent City evictions resulted in front page and national television news coverage provided an opportunity for all three levels of government to promote their policies and clarify their commitments to the provision of affordable housing. On this they were all remarkably silent. Addressing the eviction, Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman focused on the rights of the property owner, Home Depot, to evict squatters. He said nothing about the homeless or about the future of the Tent City residents. He provided no vision or solution nor did he mention the City’s programs–probably because they have largely been ineffectual. As the application form for the City’s subsidized housing program indicates, there is a five-year waiting list, with 45,000 households already in line.

On November 22, National Housing Day, the National Housing and Homelessness Network is re-launching its One Percent Solution campaign, which calls for an additional one percent of the federal and provincial governments’ budgets to be allocated to the provision of new social housing. The funds would be targeted to constructing 25,000 social housing units annually, providing rent supplements to low income households and improved shelter and services to the homeless.

The absence of affordable housing is putting people at risk. Each week there are two more homeless deaths reported in Toronto. Last year, over 2,000 applications for evictions were made each month in Canada’s largest city. The One Percent Solution could be an effective start to addressing homelessness, which four years ago a nationwide coalition of City Councils and community groups declared to be a National Disaster.

Contrary to suggestions by its detractors, Tent City was not a shantytown constructed to promote a political agenda nor a place for partying dropouts. However makeshift, it was a community, a neighbourhood, a collection of homes assembled by people with nowhere else to go. Without the involvement of all three levels of government, not only will other Tent Cities sprout up, they may soon be a nationwide phenomenon.

Marybeth McTeague teaches history and theory of housing in the Department of Architectural Science at Ryerson University. Photograph by the author.