By: Sonja Perisic
Khaleel Seivwright has become something of a household name in Toronto in the last few weeks. With the support of over $200k in GoFundMe donations, the Toronto carpenter has been building tiny insulated shelters for Toronto’s homeless community as an alternative to tents or park benches. Many of the city’s homeless shelters are experiencing overcrowding and COVID-19 outbreaks, and are unable to accommodate the growing number of people driven to homelessness as a result of a pandemic-induced recession. Toronto Tiny Shelters released a video in which tiny shelter inhabitants share testimonials of how the structures have protected them through the cold weather conditions: “Because it is off the ground, even if it rains, there is no dampness”. Another person shares “It has definitely made a big difference in my life. I can actually sleep for 6-7 hours. It is a blessing…if anyone disagrees with that they do not understand the struggle”. Apparently, understanding of the struggle was lacking at Toronto City Hall, which has filed to immediately halt this creative solution to one of the City’s largest problems.
The City filed an application with the Ontario Superior Court on Feb. 12 to prevent what it considers “illegal dumping of wooden shelters on city-owned land” and a “violation of city bylaws”. This injunction would ban Seivwright from placing the shelters on city land, citing “encampment risks” such as fires as the rationale behind the legal action. The City has even removed a few shelters from local parks, as documented by citizens passing through Alexandra Park last weekend via social media. People took to posting their outrage online and sharing petitions to call on the city to drop its application for the injunction against Seivwright. Many were shocked that the city would pursue such a laborious and costly court process instead of providing the homeless with basic access to safe housing and helping Khaleel pursue his goodwill initiative.
On February 22, Seivwright released a video statement in response to the city’s application for an injunction: “With winter approaching, I knew that without shelter people would die, as they do in Toronto every year”. Seivwright says the problem is not the tiny shelters, but that Toronto’s most vulnerable people are “falling through the cracks”. Many have concurred that the “illegality” and the “danger posed by a risk of encampment fires” justifications behind the injunction are excuses that are misdirected against the larger issue of the City failing to assist its marginalized populations. Legislation is constantly changing and being amended to encompass the contemporary needs of society. These kinds of kinds of regulations and by-laws prevent ingenious solutions like Tiny Shelters from being adopted and implemented. What better grounds are there for over writing these peripheral constitutional by-laws than saving lives? Until real alternatives to the tiny shelters exist, the City should not be looking to remove or destroy what has been the best option for many people this winter. The City should instead look to how it is going to support these initiatives, provide safe shelters themselves, and revise any municipal laws that do not fit into present circumstances.
The circumstances are such that in a global pandemic, housing is becoming scarce and Extreme Cold Weather Alerts persist in the months of February and March, with temperatures reaching -18 degrees. Seivwright released an update on March 3rd, stating the City has not dropped its case against him. Along with dropping his case, Seivwright is also asking that the City stop removing tiny shelters while temperatures are still low and while COVID-19 remains in the shelter system. “Removing tiny shelters right now is putting people in unnecessary danger”. Seivwright has re-opened the GoFundMe donations page to accept contributions towards his legal fees and the Encampment Support Network, who are dedicated to supporting encampment residents.
Until then, there will be an ongoing fight unless the City retracts. Right now, many Toronto residents believe that the City’s unspoken objective is to make homelessness invisible and tear down sights of its inadequacies and neglect. The City is unprepared to make certain sacrifices in order to allow solutions to flourish and is choosing to use its resources to prioritize veiling the crisis. People will continue to protest through media channels and share this story but what is really needed for change is for the real culprit, the City of Toronto, to face up to its housing crisis and look for more productive ways to rectify it.
Sonja Perisic is a first year Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. Her interests are in environmental, social, and urban policy. Sonja holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in English from the University of Toronto.