AHCP Statement: On emergency tiny shelters

As we head into colder months and a second heightened wave of the pandemic, the AHCP collective are adding our voices to the rounds of housing advocates, activists and city residents calling upon all levels of government to immediately prioritize the protection of tenants and finding safe housing solutions for people who have been unhoused. In the city of Toronto, the combined force of months of insufficient support for tenants, the cancellation of the eviction moratorium, the return to Landlord Tenant Board hearings and evictions, and the City of Toronto’s program of encampment removal, are pushing residents into a dire situation. Strong action is urgently needed around these issues. We stand with tenants and with encampment residents facing the uncertainty of the months ahead, and join the call to end the forced removal of people from their homes.

The Affordable Housing Challenge Project Collective stands in solidarity with carpenter Khaleel Seivwright and the increasing number of groups speaking out against the dismantling or removal of shelters in public spaces in the city.

The City of Toronto views the presence of structures in our public parks as ‘illegal,’ and has taken taking a law-and-order approach to the issue of temporary emergency ‘tiny shelters’ in parks, taking legal action to prevent more from being provided to those sleeping outside and forcefully removing some. Many people who have used the tiny shelters have spoken out against the recent court injunction against Seivwright. Encampment residents have described the police enforcement practices as violent and involving high levels of harassment and destruction of tents and survival equipment. They have also described the City’s response as inadequate and not meeting the specific needs of many unhoused people. Many have made the difficult decision to stay outside through the coldest months of winter because the City’s formal shelter system presents a high risk of exposure to COVID-19 (including new variants), because options presented remove people from their existing support networks, and because of the policing of residents in formal shelter spaces. Many have sought refuge in shelters only to be turned away due to shelters regularly being over capacity – a problem that existed before COVID-19.

We believe other responses to the ongoing crisis are both needed and possible. We would like to use this as an opportunity to highlight the recommendations of the Office of the Chief Coroner in the 2018 Faulkner inquest, which encouraged, among other things, that the City of Toronto review its existing policies around the provision of survival gear to unhoused residents, and the expansion of harm reductions principles and services in the existing formal shelter system. We also would like to highlight other cities, such as Ulm in Germany, which have taken more supportive approaches to the provision of emergency shelters and sleeping pods. We encourage the City to see this example as an inspiration for what a different approach might look like. If the City deems tiny shelters to be unsafe, they have an immediate responsibility to find safer accommodations for those sleeping in them. With many of the City’s shelters being regularly over capacity, this means temporarily ensuring that those forced to sleep outside are provided with means of doing so more safely and more comfortably. Ultimately, no one should be put in a position where they need to choose between risking freezing, burning, or exposing themselves to COVID-19. The fact that many hundreds of Toronto residents feel they have no other choice is a direct consequence of decades of underfunding and underregulating of housing in Toronto. If this controversy shows anything, it is the utter inadequacy and inequity of the existing housing system, and the need to radically rethink how we address housing needs across the city.

We know that shelters like sleeping pods and tiny shelters are no replacement for secure, long-term housing solutions, but in an emergency situation they are a necessary tool. We urge the City to immediately drop legal action against Khaleel Seivwright, and to stop removing shelters from public spaces.

Loren March and Jeremy Withers on behalf of the Affordable Housing Challenge Collective.

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