The Hoser is in the middle of our December year-end fundraiser. We can't continue to do this work without the support of our readers. Consider contributing today to keep powering The Hoser's local journalism.
A small-scale encampment on the stoop of St. Stephen-In-The-Fields church has been under the lens of the City of Toronto for some time. The church (and its accompanying encampment) are hard to miss as they are nestled in the corner of Bellvue Avenue and can be seen by any passerby making their way east on College or heading Northbound through Kensington Market.
The City of Toronto administered a Notice of Violation to the encampment last week, as city archives indicated that the front courtyards of the church were technically city property.
After coordinating with the church, the City arranged that those who were being displaced could relocate to the south field of the courtyard on the other side of St. Stephen’s and set up camp with their neighbours.
To many who support the site, this was an act of municipal mismanagement, issued with little tact and executed with even less.
A Campaign of Harassment
On the morning of Thursday, December 15, city vehicles began to arrive on the scene.
Police cruisers, city-branded pick-up trucks and officials began promptly clearing the north site, however, in an almost cataclysmic fashion, in the midst of harsh winds, freezing rain and a city-wide weather warning, a bulldozer equipped with an industrial claw began to tear through the homes and belongings that were not moved in time.
“There must have been some miscommunication along the way, the notice expired this morning but there were a few residents on the north end that were set up to be cleared that were not aware of what was going on,” says Alykhan Pabani, a member of Encampment Support Network Parkdale who was on the scene.
As Pabani moved through the cluttered south plot of St. Stephen’s to check in on the displaced residents’ well-being, the risk of exposure to the elements was not their only concern.
While support members, residents and friends of the displaced were huddling to stay safe and dry the city continued its reckless demolition of the north plot.
“You can see, with the help of police, they brought this massive machine just steps away from this row of tents that had people in them, and actively removed heavy objects that were just flying around through this process,” said a visibly concerned Pabani.
Pabani was able to speak to the history of St. Stephen’s encampment. Over the course of its existence, the city has issued several notices to the space and has been persistent in ensuring all forthcoming changes are executed with little to no interruption.
“These notices — if you look at all of them together — it’s a campaign of harassment. First, it was notices for tents alongside the perimeter, but they got rid of those. Now it is surrounding issues like access to the side entrance, which was never obstructed and regularly cleaned up by residents. The city appears to be making up ways to keep decreasing the footprint of the encampment,” Pabani said.
Pabani noted that the recent city strategies have reduced the encampment’s size by roughly 75 per cent. This has only raised further concern, as in his experience, Pabani has seen that the St. Stephen’s site operated as a key location for those in need to connect with their friends and find support.
“In the last three weeks, it has been reduced to just this little square here,” Pabani said gesturing to the south plot of St. Stephen’s. “People are going to be crawling all over each other now and it is going to be worse.”
The Encampment’s Destruction
Among the individuals present during the events of December 15, none maintain a more emotional and practical understanding of the north plot demolition than the very people who called it home.
One resident — who goes by M.J. — watched the events unfold in real-time, from the minute the first drops of frigid rain fell, to the minute the once communal expanse of tents was relegated to a pit of ice, pigeons and mud.
“I was outside getting rained on, just watching, observing. At one point they told everybody that we couldn’t even be in the walkways. I just sat back on the fence, all by myself just and watched, I was just like ‘this is so fucking ugly,” M.J. said.
The chaotic manner in which the city was tearing down the north plot was enough to give anyone pause for concern. By the time the claw-clad bulldozer began tearing into tents, M.J. had sought shelter with fellow residents.
“I went into the tent because I didn’t want to see what was happening, it was actually quite devastating. I’ve seen it before, years ago, at the Bathurst Bridge and I bawled my eyes out then. I just really didn’t want to continue seeing that,” M.J. said.
As the north plot’s demolition continued, M.J. and additional residents couldn’t help but fear for their immediate safety, as the city's demolition crew was only mere meters away, tossing the former homes of residents with no proper supervision.
“They’re coming in with a fucking machine-like claw, which they didn’t even know how to use properly. The number of times I saw them dropping shit on the ground, I was like ‘ this is pathetic’ they’re coming in here and they don’t even know how to use the machine? I mean they dropped a propane tank,” says M.J.
The recklessness in which the city was demolishing the north plot didn’t stop there, as both M.J. and other residents witnessed the bulldozer tear into a tent which contained a fire extinguisher.
“This isn’t about our safety, this is about having control over us,” says M.J.
Contact with residents concerning hazardous materials wasn’t the only line of communication that suffered due to municipal incompetence, as relocation offers by city officials were made without any follow-up process.
These rapid relocation proposals resulted in people adhering to the ‘two bag limit’ city-operated shelters adhere to, where shelter residents are only allowed to bring two bags of belongings into the shelter. But encampment residents say that when they arrived at the shelter there were no beds available, meaning that they forfeited most of their belongings and tents only to be left with nowhere to exist.
“They’re putting us in spots that within weeks could be closed. Like, within two weeks. They did that with Novotel, where they housed people, and then two weeks later they were still taking people in with the knowledge that nobody was going to be there in less than a month,” says M.J.
M.J said the city described the destruction of the encampment as a “relocation,” but M.J feels that it was an eviction.
“Of course, it was [ an eviction]. It was stealing our belongings and making sure we were no longer above this certain line,” M.J. said. “They wanted us to get the fuck out of there, that’s exactly what an eviction is. They took all of our belongings and anyone who says [otherwise] clearly doesn’t understand what an eviction is. They stole all of our stuff, they stole what is considered our housing. This is where our homes are.”
The Community Relies on Each Other
When word reached the community of what was going to occur at the St. Stephen’s encampment, many within the unhoused community mobilized to set up their own tents in the area in order to help long-term residents move their tents and belongings when the time came.
One of these individuals is Jason Phillips.
“I found out what was happening to a certain area, at a certain time, so I came to set up early and help some of my friends,” says Phillips.
Phillips was able to recount that when city vehicles and police arrived to relocate residents to the other side of the property, those involved were cooperative and did so with little to no resistance.
However, Phillips couldn’t help but notice such a show of force on a day when residents were already soaked to the bone from freezing rain.
“[City officials] have been doing this job for how many years? When you go about it in this kind of way, you can trigger people to become combative, they push people to a line so then they have a reason to say this is why ‘these people’ should be corralled in the first place,” Phillips said.
Phillips has been on the receiving end of city-wide strategies designed to assist those who are unhoused. He has been in and out of several shelter hotels, and tragically, lost his daughter to an overdose while she was in shelter care this past summer.
“These aren't safe spaces, they say they are a controlled environment but they aren’t,” Phillips said.
Phillips is also concerned about the manner in which the city went about notifying encampment residents about the impending relocation, urging that many within encampments don’t have the skills required to manage an exodus.
“The issue is, some of these people have mental health problems, they don’t have access to proper medication or the help they need. You’re never going to have a moment where everybody is on the same page and can move as one.”
Reverend Canon Maggie Helwig is the proprietor of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields church.
When both the church and encampment members were handed the initial Notice of Violation Helwig was notified that the relocation would occur sometime either on or after December 8. According to Helwig, this arrangement was discussed at length with the church, encampment members and city representatives.
However, Helwig discerns that the vocabulary circulating is incorrect, and the proposed strategy was not an eviction.
“The city’s implementation was heavy-handed and insensitive, however, it was not an eviction and not unexpected. It was a deal we made with the city and discussed with the residents which have enabled us to keep everyone here,” says Helwig.
In regards to how the city handled the tear-down, Helwig isn’t surprised that it was a complete blunder, as not only did the incident occur during a time deemed hazardous to those being displaced, but city vehicles also obstructed fire trucks leaving the adjacent Fire Station 315, resulting in delayed departures due to city vehicles having to be moved.
With the date of the tear-down set and a deal struck between the city and the church, Helwig was locked into the agreement.
“We would have moved it, we had been trying to push things as far as possible. I think we had hoped the severe weather would have pushed it back as far as possible and make the city adjust their timetable, but, they didn’t,” Helwig said.
When the day arrived with black clouds and a bulldozer, Helwig was able to witness first-hand the sense of community and preparation that was being shared amongst the site in the face of a looming adversary.
“There was certainly a cooperative spirit moving around as people were trying to work together and support one another in an effort to make it as untraumatic as it could be under the circumstances, however, it was still traumatic,” Helwig said.
As for the future of the St. Stephen’s encampment site, given her experiences with the city and the events of the day, Helwig can’t help but feel that the south plot is not out of danger, and if anything, is likely the next target.
“I don’t anticipate the city is going to leave the south side, they have been clear they are going to leave it alone ‘for now’ and they always stress ‘for now.’ I don’t know how long that could be, it could be a week, or it could be longer. I hope it’s longer, we’re going to push as long as we can and keep people here s long as we can,” says Helwig.