[Hpn] TORONTO TENT CITY highlights Homelessness Emergency in Canada (fwd) (fwd)

Tom Boland wgcp@earthlink.net
Sun, 11 Feb 2001 10:41:44 -0800 (PST)


http://dailynews.yahoo.com/h/nm/20010210/wl/canada_tentcity_dc_2.html 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 affordable housing. ``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 made available.'' 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