Canada

LIFE IN 'TENT CITY'

John Nicol January 15 2001
Canada

LIFE IN 'TENT CITY'

John Nicol January 15 2001

LIFE IN 'TENT CITY'

Canada

John Nicol

For a contaminated property, 324 Cherry St. is a popular spot. The 5.3 hectares of scrubland, drenched in heavy metals from abandoned factories and squeezed between Toronto’s harbour and its downtown highways, has long been a secluded refuge for towtruck drivers looking to share a reefer, or prostitutes seeking to turn tricks. Lately, though, because of what is called “Tent City”—a makeshift camp of drifters and the working homeless—the site has become a veritable thoroughfare for Good Samaritans. Some have arrived dropping off clothes, food and heating fuels. Chocolate-bearing evangelists show up hoping to lure the residents to church on Sunday. Add to this

a steady stream of reporters and local politicians trying to make hay from what Dr. Sheela Basrur, Toronto’s medical officer of health, calls “a very sad picture. In Canada’s biggest city, the situation for the homeless is so desperate that they’re doing everything they can to continue living on contaminated land—because that’s preferable to other options.”

The land, long neglected, has suddenly taken on new significance. It is a prime piece in a grand scheme to redevelop Toronto’s waterfront, and it could well be the entry point for an Olympic village housing 16,000 athletes if Toronto is awarded the 2008 Summer Games. In October, with a federal election in the offing, Mayor Mel Lastman announced,

Homeless squatters are seen as a hindrance to the Olympic bid

with Ontario Premier Mike Harris and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, a joint plan to pump $1.5 billion into Toronto’s old harbour area to help secure the Olympic bid. The city is pulling out all the stops. All three levels of government are now onside. Toronto’s business elite is ready to jump into the massive redevelopment scheme. All that stands in the way is a motley collection of squatters, as many as 20 homeless people, many of them job-seekers from other parts of Canada.

These squatters had been encamped on Cherry Street since spring without anyone taking much notice. Then in November, Ontario’s environment ministry issued ominous warnings to the owner of the land, Home Depot Canada, to “take such actions as necessary” to make sure the property is not a health hazard. The timing seemed suspicious. Activists for the homeless believe Toronto’s Olympic promoters want the area cleared before a technical evaluation panel from the International Olympic Committee comes to town in March. Suddenly, says Beric German, co-founder of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, there is panic that homeless people might be exposed to toxic metals. “There was not too much concern for their mental health or that they might freeze to death out here in tents,” said German. “This is a tale of two cities—those in the tents and a city filled with speculators hoping to cash in on waterfront or Olympic land.” Toronto would not be alone in trying to hide its homeless from the IOC: Atlanta arrested and harassed more than 9,000 homeless people in the months leading up to the 1996 Games; Sydney, Australia, set aside a storehouse of temporary beds in case the homeless problem rocketed to attention during last summer’s Games. At Toronto’s Tent City, the residents are bemused by all the fuss. Three of them—keeping warm in an insulated hut with a propane heater and a botde of cheap brandy—thought themselves quite lucky. Outside, it was -17° C, not including the wind chill blasting off Lake Ontario. They even enjoyed a fine view of the Toronto skyline through the hut’s window. But more important, they

said, they were not in the city’s overcrowded shelters, where theft and sickness are too common; nor were they huddled over heating vents on city streets. “We were sleeping outside City Hall,” said Christian Ouimet, 22, of Montreal. He and a pal, Ryan Schnare, 19, of Liverpool, N.S., made their way to Tent City when a homeless man they knew was bludgeoned to death in May.

Ouimet and Schnare had come to Toronto in the spring looking for work. They found jobs as extras on a movie set, but said their agent absconded with their pay. Their only break was the donation last month of a prefab hut—two eight-by12-foot rooms, each with its own front door— emergency shelters built by a firm in Bond Head, Ont., for the Third World. That allowed them to upgrade from their previous “home” in a tent. The huts have no water or electricity, and their portable toilet is across the field. But for them it is home. To save on donated fuel, they create bonfires at night from scrap wood gathered in a wheelchair liberated from a local hospital. Standing near the crackling fire, underneath the flight path of planes headed for the Toronto Island airport, Ouimefs hut mate Pat Lepage, from the Gaspé, says they feel free. They don’t even mind being poster boys for the advocates of affordable housing.

It is a discouraging campaign. John Jagt, Toronto’s beleaguered director of hostel services, who has seen the city’s temporary beds double to 5,000 in eight years, says the problem will only get worse. The city’s apartment vacancy rate is 0.6 per cent; the cost of land and houses has soared; and the lifting of rent controls has made affordable rental units scarce. But the real problem, says Toronto councillor Jack Layton—author of a new book, Homelessness: The Making and Unmaking of a Crisis—is the lack of political will to build affordable housing. “We’re the only country in the Olympic bidding process that has no national housing strategy,” says Layton. Deregulating rents in Ontario, he argues, “has resulted in a windfall for landlords, while we lose 100 to 300 affordable units a week.” The problem, housing advocates say, is nationwide.

But with no national solutions in sight, Layton will ask Toronto’s council to help the squatters move to a city-owned site as soon as possible. If they do move, it will mean tearing down the fanciest abode on the site, a two-bedroom shelter scavenged from unwanted building products and belonging to Karl Schmidt, 50, a fruit farmer who flies a German flag atop his roof. Schmidt’s cozy home—heated by a woodstove—is complete with french doors, a skylight and a picture window overlooking the lake. The self-described mayor of Tent City is resigned to moving, but he believes his flag will be the only one from an Olympic country that will ever fly over this site. “If governments can’t solve a problem like housing,” he says, “how are they going to get the Olympics?” ES]