[Hpn] TORONTO TENT CITY highlights Homelessness Emergency in Canada
Sun, 11 Feb 2001 10:41:44 -0800 (PST)
FWD Reuters | Saturday February 10 2001
TORONTO TENT CITY DRAWS FOCUS TO PLIGHT OF HOMELESS
By Cameron French
TORONTO (Reuters) - Not far from the 80-story bank towers and
majestic Art Deco hotel facades that stand proudly at the
epicenter of Toronto, there is a poisonous nugget of frozen land
that is generating more than its fair share of interest.
The media calls it ``tent city'' and it houses a chunk of the
city's growing army of homeless, nestled in the curve of
Toronto's waterfront near the base of the massive CN tower.
The land is contaminated from years of industrial use and now
lies empty, waiting for development by the home improvement
retailer who owns it. Its current residents are not condo-hungry
yuppies but a rag-tag band ranging from 20 to 40 people,
depending on the weather.
For them it is home sweet home and, despite the toxic lead
stew in the ground beneath them, it beats the alternatives.
``I'm living the good life here, as far as I'm concerned,''
said Brian Boyd, who is not above cracking open an imported beer
at 11 in the morning in freezing weather.
``I'm not too worried about the contamination right now
because it's pretty much frozen. My honest opinion is that this
contaminated land is everywhere on the waterfront,'' he said.
Despite being the wealthiest city in Canada and a tourist
magnet, Toronto suffers from growing homelessness. With more than
6,000 beds jammed into shelters that are full by early evening,
the city refuses to guess at the true number of people forced to
survive on its frigid streets.
Now a small shantytown has sprung up on a stretch of land
that has been earmarked for bigger and better things. Some
officials, like City Councilor Jack Layton, applaud residents of
the tent city for bringing attention to a crisis.
``It's an unbelievably positioned site, owned by a company
called, ironically, Home Depot. Then it turns out the site is
contaminated and possibly to be used for the Olympics in some
way,'' Layton said.
'Right In The Middle Of A Housing Crisis'
``It's right in the middle of a housing crisis with the
shelters being full. I mean, you go on and on, it's sort of like
a convergence of all these different issues.''
The Lake Ontario waterfront has been a field of dreams in the
past year as growing expectations of landing the 2008 Olympics
have led to a flurry of big plans. Recently the city unveiled a
multibillion-dollar redevelopment plan including a new streetcar
line, demolition of an elevated highway, inserting a necklace of
green space and rerouting a river.
But for now, there is a fire inside a steel drum that warms a
blackened coffee pot; makeshift shacks cobbled together from
scraps of tarpaulin, broken crates and other dockland refuse
cluster together in the frigid wind.
Boyd says tent city has a sense of community that city-run
shelters lack. ``I have a girlfriend, so we're a couple, and the
chances for us to be together (in a shelter) are almost
nonexistent. Plus, the fact that we have a dog, it just totally
eliminates us,'' he said.
``The other trouble with shelters is you have to be there by 8
o'clock, then out by 8 the next morning. Then, if you're not back
right at 8 again, the bed's gone.''
But curfews and basic privacy aside, the element keeping many
from the shelters is the fear factor. Street nurse Kathy Hardill
said with conditions that would not pass muster at a UN refugee
camp, people are afraid for good reason.
``For starters, about one in three are tuberculosis carriers,
which is higher than the global average -- which doesn't mean
they are sick, or even contagious, but that the disease is in
there, waiting to start up,'' she said.
``They'll have one bathroom each for men and women in a
shelter with 150 beds,'' she added.
High Rates Of Violence
There is also the issue of personal safety in shelters. High
rates of violence have led to some deaths of homeless people.
So for many it is back to tent city, which has showed signs
of growth with the arrival of three prefab one-room homes, the
fruits of a run of donations by local organizations.
Home Depot Canada, a division of the Atlanta-based home
improvement retailer, had originally planned to put a store on
the site but they were refused by the city, which saw the land as
a pinch point for its own development plans.
``The city has slapped an interim bylaw on any of the
waterfront property,'' spokesman David Day said. ``What that does,
in essence, is stop anyone from doing any development until they
figure out what they want to do with the waterfront.''
Home Depot, which was asked by the city to secure the site,
has until recently been trying to get rid of the squatters.
The firm set up barriers to keep the prefab homes from being
delivered but relented after a meeting with Layton. Now it says
its main concern is for the safety of the residents.
``The big thing is to come up with a plan (for the homeless)
so these folks don't end up dumped out there on the curb,'' Day
said. ``That doesn't help anyone in the long run.''
Layton's task, meanwhile, is to figure out what to do with
the tent city residents. He says the only solution is permanent
``We need several thousand units built every decade if we're
going to see the homeless problem seriously affected,'' he said.
''Other places like Paris and New York have been successful. We're
doing nothing in Canada. We're probably the only developed
country in the world without a successful homeless program.''
For the time being, street nurse Cathy Crowe says the unique
situation of tent city is a good thing for its residents.
``They have control of their lives again,'' she said. ``They
have a routine, and a few of them go to work every day. I think
they're developing a way of beginning to live again, and I can
picture people going from there to other housing if it's ever
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