Living Unseen: Addressing the Homelessness Crisis in Toronto

The city of Toronto, Ontario encompasses a span of little homes, shacks, and encampments; a population of unique identities that struggle every day to fight the structures of erasure that are trying to displace them physically over time. These shelters are more than just structures, they are a part of an initiative by the Toronto Tiny Shelters Organization to raise awareness and support for the homelessness crisis in Toronto.

The organization was formed by Khaleel Sievwright, a former carpenter, aged 28 who built his first shelter for himself while he was homeless living outside in -15 degree B.C weather. Sievwright has been concerned with the homelessness crisis in Toronto especially experiencing it himself. Building the shelters is something he states “[he] already knew how to do”, so he began to use his skills to help others like him. He makes these structures with the accompaniment of his team and a community of willing volunteers. As temperatures drop below -20 degrees Celsius and the numbers spike in COVID-19 related deaths, the homelessness crisis grows far more dangerous as it consumes more lives. This year, the homelessness crisis has contributed to the displacement of over 10,000 residents all over the city of Toronto. As Sievwright and his team strive to build more shelters, stricter regulations are placed by the City of Toronto to remove them.

A figure lies down on the bare floor of a local street in black covering on a black mat. The figure is covered with a light settlement of snow. The floor around him is completely covered in snow and the sidewalk beside him has many footprints. Behind the figure is a busy intersection where 3 figures are crossing the road as 4 cars wait for them. One can see some buildings off into the distance and a Coke truck drives down the road parallel to the sleeping figure.
A homeless figure is covered in fresh snowfall while sleeping on the side of the road. The weather is -8 degrees celsius with a wind chill of -18. The image is titled ‘Homeless In Toronto’. It was captured by Peter Beens originally posted to Flickr but sourced via Credit Commons and licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 .

An injunction filed against Khaleel by the City on February 12th prevents Sievwright from making, repairing, or relocating these tiny shelters on any land that is classified as city-owned. The structures are counting at 300, and Sievwrightexpressed that he started building the shelters to safeguard a population of people he regards as “the most vulnerable”. The shelters he builds are a small part of a temporary solution to keep people alive until they can access alternative housing. With the very brutal winter approaching, the death rate in Toronto will skyrocket. This injunction works to perpetuate the uprootedness of the homeless population by placing restrictions on the claiming of space necessary for survival.

A Toronto tiny shelter built by Khaleel Sievwright sitting centered in the image. The shelter seems fully inhabited as it is decorated with signs, posters, and graffiti-styled paintings and prized possessions scattered messily; all which are halfway buried in the light snow. There is a sign sticking out from the top of the shelter reading "Welcome Home" on a white rectangular sign with red blotches covering the sides and corners, leaving the middle unevenly white. The sky is dark indicating it is evening time and the image of the shelter sits in front of a row of bare trees as the sun sets.
Picture of a Tiny Sheter located in an encampment area at Trinity Bellwoods Park Toronto, ON. Photo taken by Nick Kozak via @kozaknick on Instagram

The trail of homes and tents are not hard to miss, as they are situated in several places throughout the city. Looking at the issue of homelessness in Toronto points to a broader structure of poverty and environmental racism present within Canadian institutions. Not only has this structure been perpetuated by the historical upliftment of whiteness in Canada but it is further emboldened by the Anthropocene, an age termed by Paul Crutzen. Specifically, the lens of the Anthropocene reveals how the intensification of climate change amidst the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacts minority peoples. The persistent elimination of initiatives such as these tiny shelters further reveals how governing systems in Canada are working “against efforts to sustain livable climates and the abilities of people to adapt”.  When examining the origin of the Anthropocene it becomes clearer how this structure of uprootedness is established off a colonial framework and hierarchal structure, that works subtly to displace racial minorities by preventing them from establishing settlement on the land.

The Anthropocene, like the etymology of geography, describes the literal writing of the earth’s geography. Heather Davis and Zoe Todd argue that the start of the Anthropocene should be 1610, coinciding with the early colonial exchanges of goods, crops, and animals which contributed to the drastic shift in the landscape. This further contributed to the displacement of early Indigenous nations and the unequal power relationships between different groups of people. Land in North America has historically been a composite for the removal of those who oppose the structure of whiteness or those that are differently invoking initiatives of climate correction that have radically impacted the biosphere and promote “the right way of living”. Sievwright is an example of this, as he works to establish sustainable housing in ways that the governmental structure seems to oppose. The issue of homelessness persists within minority communities not just as a social issue, but as an uprootedness that is present in society as a whole and how it removes minorities from settling in public spaces. For example, African Americans are 16 times more likely to end up in shelters than their white counterparts. The issue of homelessness speaks to the greater more pertinent structure of poverty present in black neighborhoods and their poor sustainment amidst environmental destruction. The African American population comprises 26% of those living in poverty and 40% of the homeless population. Black men specifically are also more likely to find themselves in shelters, where they remain longer than white men. These statistics only depict one demographic amidst the many that exist.

A signboard shaped like a house divided into two parts that sits in front of a building made from brick. The signboard is large on the image and it reads “TORONTO HOMELESS MEMORIAL” in big bold letters and “Memorial Service – Second Tuesday of Each Month at 12 Noon” is smaller lettering below the big letters. The sign seems weathered as the black paint on the borders of the sign are fading and chipped. The lower half of the sign states individual names that are illegible because of the camera angle and the glaring light bouncing off the glass covering on the sign.
Toronto Homeless Memorial sign-board with names and a service schedule. The Shot by Loretta Lime from Toronto, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons. Sourced from and taken directly from the Toronto Homeless Memorial site. Licensed by Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

On March 19,2021, the city of Toronto posted a notice evicting all encampments in parks across Toronto. Not only will this displace several homeless people, but it renders them homeless until the city determines a suitable shelter for them indoors, one that is unlikely with the overcrowded shelter system. Sievwright’s structures reclaim shelter and survival for many who are subjected to a harsher reality. Sievwright calls on the help of the public through a Go Fund Me page where he wants to raise more money for building materials. The shelters are not only a physical manifestation of settlement and rootedness but a message that works to enforce the resettlement of lands that have been owned by structures of colonialism.   It describes “not merely the ‘human impact’ on the nonhuman world but also the folding of human activity into earth-surface systems such that it becomes in some sense indigenous to those systems”. Human activity is linked to space and land. Sievwright’s story is a testament to how land has historically been placed in the hands of those that hinder the navigation and livelihoods of vulnerable populations to the point where even initiatives that serve to fix it are disbanded.