n an unseasonably warm early-December morning the sun peaked low in the sky and a brisk wind made sure that anyone standing still remained uncomfortably cold. A small tent had lost all familiar form, mashed against a brick wall and packed so full with blankets that its poles no longer touched the ground. 

The face of a young woman poked out from between unzipped walls of nylon.

Thirty-seven-year-old Angel “Ja Ja” Dupuis wanted a cigarette, a request that was quickly tended to by a nearby person in her encampment. Dupuis sobbed between drags as tears ran down her cheeks. 

“My boyfriend left and took all my stuff.” She said. “I miss my family so much.”

The homeless encampment in front of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields church, in Toronto, December 8th, 2022. As winter begins, homelessness rates are up, Toronto’s shelter system is full and the city continues to evict homeless encampments. Photo by Ian Willms

Being robbed could be considered minor compared to what Dupuis, 37, had already been through. She candidly told The Hoser that she’d experienced physical abuse by an ex-boyfriend that led to a miscarriage 19 years ago. She was also estranged with her daughter, whose father was recently murdered.  

As Dupuis lingered in the respite of the fleeting nicotine rush, she faced the possibility of having to find a new place to sleep. Today was the day that the City of Toronto said they would come to evict the encampment that Dupuis had relied upon for the past six months. If she happened to be away from her tent at the time of the eviction, all of her remaining possessions could be thrown out. 

Being robbed by your boyfriend is one thing, being robbed by a municipality that purports to support you is another. Like previous homeless encampment evictions, the police or city workers could come at any time, on any day, and without warning.

 The encampment on the doorstep of Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields on the outskirts of Kensington Market is small by comparison to those which were evicted from Lamport Stadium, Scadding Court, and Trinity Bellwoods in 2021. “While [the City has] changed their approach from the heavy, militarised evictions of last summer, they’re still just as intended,” said Alykhan Pabani of the Parkdale Encampment Support Network. 

“Regardless of where people end up, the priority seems to be getting rid of tents.” 

A video posted to Twitter by jordn scum, an Indigenous resident of the Allen Gardens encampment, appears to show Belinda Batista of Toronto Encampment Outreach & Response, and an unnamed worker wearing City of Toronto logos, cutting apart a tent in Allen Gardens on the morning of December 8. In the video, Batista asserts that the resident of the tent had taken a prior offer for shelter. The anonymous camera operator pleaded, “you don’t have to destroy the tent, it can save another life.”

Smaller numbers of street-involved folks have stayed on the grounds around Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields “for at least two decades,” according to the church’s Reverend Canon Maggie Helwig. This past July, an encampment with several full-time residents began to form in front of the church’s main doors. While Helwig was sad to see an increase in homeless in the community, she and her colleagues embraced the opportunity to help their new neighbours. 

Reverend Canon Maggie Helwig inside Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields church, in Toronto, December 8th, 2022. Photo by Ian Willms

“My whole congregation has been absolutely, and without hesitation, supportive of having the encampment here.” She said.

“With the exception of issues with the city, it’s been largely fine.”

Those issues with the city have included a Notice of Violation from Toronto Municipal Licensing & Standards alleging that, according to Toronto archives, the front churchyard of Saint Stephens-in-the-Fields, which has only ever been utilized and maintained by the church, is actually considered city property.

The city also informed encampment residents that they would be evicted from the churchyard on or after December 8. Helwig says that the questions of when and, more urgently, where people are supposed to go, have yet to be answered.

“The [congregate] shelters have become more and more overcrowded and less and less safe, so people have more and more hesitation about going into a shelter at all. And that’s even when there is space, which there usually isn’t.” 

People who are able to secure a spot in a shelter hotel must adhere to a structure that many claim is impossible to navigate while coping with mental illness and/or addictions. One encampment resident in Allen Gardens, who claimed to have been in and out of shelter hotels three times, said, “they set you up for failure.”

Helwig believes that homeless encampments like the one at her door form as the result of a lack of accessible harm reduction, community and security. 

“As a temporary option, there are definitely people who find it safer and more secure than the shelter system.”

jordn scum at the homeless encampment in front of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields church, in Toronto, December 8th, 2022. Photo by Ian Willms

jordn scum says he moved out from under the Gardiner after a close friend of his was murdered there. scum now lives in the Allen Gardens encampment where “they always have an eye on me” and he’s living in plain view of the general public.

“There’s a little more safety in having a community with you.” said Helwig. “Everyone [in the encampment] has Naloxone and everyone knows how to use it, whether they use drugs or not.” Helwig has seen Naloxone administered “five or six” times in the last month. 

“We had a man who just crashed on our front step. He wasn’t in the encampment. He was just on the front step and he went down. And one of the residents immediately recognized it as an overdose and ran over with his Naloxone.”

But while it’s a bipartisan desire to want to reduce the prevalence of overdose deaths, the stigma surrounding narcotic use has politicized the debate over what harm reduction practices are effective and how to implement them.

“People’s use of drugs is being used as leverage to gain public support for these heavy-handed tactics by the City. It’s the opposite approach of addressing the root causes of why people are stuck in these situations,” said Pabani. 

Encampment resident Robbie Van Duzen at Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields church, in Toronto, December 8th, 2022. Photo by Ian Willms

Robbie Van Duzen has been homeless since he was released from jail in July. A hint of pride crept into his soft-spoken, calming voice on Friday when he explained that he had gone for addiction treatment and managed to stay clean through the summer. 

Then, after multiple “wash/rinse/repeats,” a term used for having your belongings robbed while you’re asleep, Van Duzen relapsed. Now that he’s regularly using again, Van Duzen is well aware that the next hit could be his last. With eight overdoses already behind him, and a strong religious faith, Van Duzen says he doesn’t fear death so much as he prefers to avoid it. It’s withdrawal that really scares him.

“We need that hit or our bodies put us through the most excruciating pain that is known. I don’t even use it to get high anymore. I use it to feel normal, Van Duzen said ““I wish I could have known about habit-forming medication when I first started using at 17 years old.”

As we approach the darkest days of the year and the impending winter brings lethal cold to our streets, organizations like Encampment Support Network Parkdale are working daily to minimize the human casualties of what they believe are systemic failings.

“People are just criminalized for existing.” Said Pabani 

“All these things lead to deaths and the death [numbers] are climbing.”

Meanwhile, Saint Stephens-in-the-Fields is appealing to the public for donations of warm blankets, hand warmers and foot warmers.

As the sun dragged behind the leafless trees, sending jagged tendrils of shadow across the weathered facade of Saint Stephens-in-the-Fields, people chatted in and around the encampment. A group of pigeons scoured the stone sidewalk for crumbs and a road-worn SUV pulled up to the curb. Nazar Mawj, an Afghan Canadian delivery driver from North York had stopped by to donate a flat of canned pop to the encampment. 

“I’m not rich, but they are the weakest part of our population. They need our help.”

Dec 13, 2022
Local News
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