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Friday, April 12, 2024

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Despite lack of safe shelter, displacement machine alive and well

Protesters at St. Stephens in-the-Fields encampment eviction.
Protesters at St. Stephens in-the-Fields encampment eviction.

The city of Toronto seems to feel no shame when it comes to displacing people from homes and shelters

When I collaborated with outreach worker Greg Cook to produce Displacement City. Fighting for Health and Homes in a Pandemic (2022, UTP) I did so because I knew I was witnessing yet another chapter in the decades long intentional neglect by governments towards unhoused people. The difference being that we were in a life-threatening global pandemic.

Suffice it to say, the book begins with eight pages that list the names of people who died homeless from a variety of causes from March 2020 to June 2022 in Toronto.

With over 30 contributors, ten of whom were homeless at the time of writing, Displacement City recounts the lived experience of unhoused people and those working to protect them in the pandemic: palliative care doctors, a street nurse, lawyers, outreach workers, advocates who were homeless and refugee shelter workers. Our compilation used a social justice lens to expose the linkages between colonialism and displacement and to frame the financialization of housing as the malignant backdrop to today’s crisis.

I admit I had naïvely hoped that Displacement City would shame Toronto officials to at minimum end their local practices of displacement.

One year after Displacement City’s release the machinery of displacement is well-oiled and continues. These are only some of the most blatant examples in Toronto.

  • The city of Toronto evicted a two-year-old encampment at St. Stephen in-the-Fields Anglican Church in late November. Journalist Santiago Helou Quintero noted in an article Encampment evictions are violent colonial displacement. As with other encampment evictions, heavy machinery known as the ‘claw’, arrived after dusk to crush dwellings, tents, and people’s belongings. By morning the city placed enormous concrete blocks on the grass to prevent people from returning. When questioned, Mayor Olivia Chow insisted “No one has been forced to be moved to date under my watch.”
  • Toronto is yet to declare a moratorium on encampment evictions, despite appeals by human rights advocates and the evidence there is no housing or safe shelter option. As a result, people continue to be removed one by one from sites where mostly homeowners and businesses vocally complain to their city councillors. In the case above, to Councillor Dianne Saxe.
  • Meanwhile, the city is allowing the closure of shelter hotels and is not replacing the spaces with single room shelter spaces.
  • Toronto’s own statistics demonstrate that just under 300 people are turned away daily from the Central (shelter) Intake line. Many more, who have given up on even trying to get a bed, resort to survive outside.
  • Toronto’s winter plan includes a ludicrous component that will use a transit bus staffed with city workers including security to move homeless people sheltering in subways to a shelter. If there is no space (the norm most nights) they can remain sheltered on the bus.
  • The city’s warming centres open and close erratically as the thermometer hovers at -5C. People get in for a day and then if the temperature hits -4C the sites close to new admissions, and there is essentially nowhere for people to go. It’s a revolving door of repeated displacement.
  • Despite the predictable Canadian winter, and I would argue we shouldn’t wait for cold weather, the city’s additional 24/7 winter respite centre on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition will not open until mid-December. Even Mayor Chow has stated these 200 spaces will be full within a day.
  • Displacement goes further by creating hostile architecture (for example, the benches with steel bars mid-way to prevent lying down) to the removal of street furniture. City of Toronto officials recently ripped a city bus shelter from the corner of Sherbourne and Dundas citing violence and drug use without relevant evidence or community consultation. Once again, the local city councillor Chris Moise was lobbied.
  • All three levels of government turned their back on African refugees and asylum seekers, already displaced once from their home countries due to political, economic, and human rights violations. In Toronto they were displaced a second time, forced to sleep on the sidewalk outside the City’s shelter referral site. In June acting Toronto Mayor Jennifer McKelvie announced refugees would be redirected to federal resources and would not be admitted to city shelters, a decision investigated by Toronto’s Ombudsman office. While the policy was reversed by newly elected Mayor Olivia Chow the situation is worse today. The federal government has not stepped up to their responsibility although it came to light that behind closed door meetings they had offered two armouries for short-term use for refugee shelter. Shamefully, that offer was rejected by the city. As I write this, hundreds of refugees remain outside or in inappropriate, poorly resourced churches. In November in Peel region, just outside of Toronto, an asylum seeker in his forties died in his tent.

While we witness these immediate forms of displacement that can be considered social murder, remember the monster at the door.

Gaetan Heroux, in a rabble.ca column KingSett Capital must not be allowed to mine the sky in Downtown Toronto described the decade long fight by local activists and social agencies who have called on the city to expropriate a piece of land at 214-230 Sherbourne for the purposes of building social housing. When the property finally went on the market the city did put a bid in but lost out to KingSett Capital.

Condominium developments have crept and now encroach on downtown east in Toronto. Heroux warns of further displacement by a high-rise condominium development.

Heroux warns, “KingSett’s arrival in the Downtown East will only further contribute to a growing housing crisis, lead to the displacement of poor people, and threaten a fragile infrastructure that has sustained the working poor, unemployed and homeless who have been coming here since the mid 19th century.”

230 Fightback, an experienced activist group has doggedly hounded KingSett with protests, pickets, press conferences and petitions. (It really is worth checking out Fightback’s website).

On December 7, just prior to another 230 Fightback action, the group received an email from KingSett. Here is a line from it:

“KingSett has offered to sell 214-230 Sherbourne back to the City of Toronto for a value that covers the costs we have incurred to date (and no more). We understand what this property means to the local community, and we are now patiently awaiting a response from the City regarding 214-230 Sherbourne. I hope you find this update helpful.”

Over the last few months 230 Fightback has sent several requests to meet with Mayor Chow and have asked her to take a position on 214-230 Sherbourne. They are still waiting.

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