Building tiny homeless shelters
For most of 2020, Canadians were told to stay safe at home. It was sound public health advice in the context of a global pandemic. But for the hundreds of thousands of Canadians currently experiencing homelessness, it presented a major problem.
Khaleel Seivwright wasn't homeless when the pandemic struck his hometown of Toronto, Ontario, but he didn't really have a fixed address. He was drifting. It's a state of being he's chosen to live in for much of his adult life. It affords him freedom but also a deep appreciation of the need to have a place to call home.
As the city went into lockdown and Khaleel's work in construction dried up, the 28-year-old carpenter and musician decided to head north to Manitoulin Island to spend some time in an “intentional community.” The concept wasn't new to him. In his mid-20's, he spent three years living in another such community in northern British Columbia. He found it enlightening. “I became a lot more involved in what I needed to live,” he says, contrasting the life of growing food, collecting water and creating shelter to his upbringing in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough.
When Khaleel returned to Toronto at the end of last summer, he was struck by the number of tents scattered around city parks. While the city's shelter system scrambled to adopt physical distancing rules and increase its capacity to serve Toronto's roughly ten thousand homeless people, many opted for a different solution: provisional encampments in parks.
Khaleel felt for them. Having spent a winter sleeping in the rough in Vancouver, he knew what that life was like. “You're constantly fighting against nature, against reality,” he said.
Having spent a winter sleeping in the rough in Vancouver, he knew what that life was like. “You're constantly fighting against nature, against reality,” he said.
So one September night in 2020, he loaded some building materials onto his truck and drove into the Don Valley, the wild ravine that snakes its way through Toronto's east end. He found a clear spot in the undergrowth, cranked up his generator to create some light and got to work, building a giant, habitable box. Modelled after the one he made for himself in British Columbia, it was complete with fiberglass insulation, a double-glazed casement window and a lockable door.
Over the next few days, he kept going back to work on it. On day three, he discovered a pile of possessions inside and a name painted on its wall.
The “tiny shelter” had cost Khaleel roughly $1000 in materials and eight hours of his time. If that's all it took to get a person through the winter, he felt it was more than worthwhile. He started a campaign on GoFundMe. After his project was featured on the CBC nightly news, donations went from a trickle to a flow. Within weeks, he was able to rent a warehouse in downtown Toronto, order materials in bulk and focus exclusively on building tiny shelters — with the help of some 35 volunteers.
The shelters have been distributed to tent dwellers across the city. “I've met every person that took one,” Khaleel says. “And they're really happy.”
But in November, Khaleel received a letter from the City of Toronto's general manager of the parks, forestry and recreation division prohibiting the shelters' placement on city property; it claimed the dwellings contributed to “dangerous and unhealthy” living conditions and interfered with the city's objective of clearing the encampments.
Khaleel didn't buy it. How could the city claim to be concerned about these people's well-being, while depriving them of a safe, warm place to spend the winter? He knew from conversations with encampment dwellers that many would not enter a shelter even if it did have space.
According to street nurse Cathy Crowe, who has been working with Toronto's homeless for 33 years, the city's already overburdened shelter system presents very real health risks. In October, the Ontario Superior Court ruled that the city's shelters had failed to follow physical distancing guidelines.
He knew from conversations with encampment dwellers that many would not enter a shelter even if it did have space.
By that time, some 659 shelter residents had tested positive for COVID-19 and at least five had died.
Khaleel knows that his tiny shelters won't begin to fix the problem of homelessness in Toronto. But he's pragmatic, focussed squarely on a problem that many would prefer to look away from — and that is getting worse. Recently a young man called Khaleel to “reserve” a tiny shelter; he and his father had been served an eviction notice and had nowhere else to go.
“This isn't a permanent solution,” Khaleel acknowledges. “This is just to make sure that people — some people — don't die in the cold this winter.”
Homeless individuals in Ontario are over five times more likely to die from COVID compared to other people.
27.3% of people experiencing homelessness are women, and 18.7 are youth.
34% of First Nations women and girls and 21% of racialized women and girls, are living in poverty.
At least 35,000 Canadians are homeless on a given night.
1 in 5 Indigenous people live in a dwelling that is in need of major repairs.
Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness; Lawson Research Institute and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences; Canadian Women's Foundation; Statistics Canada;