Wed. Jul 6th, 2022

In a narrow crevice between the soft earth of the Rosedale ravine and a concrete bridge just below Bloor Street, a 32-year-old man has lived in a makeshift camp, on and off, for months.

The man, who identified himself only as John, sometimes turns to Toronto’s shelter network to take a shower. He was once offered a shelter hotel spot, but kept feeling like there’d be a catch.

A handful of others live around John’s camp – six or seven lately, he estimates. He believes the ravine specifically draws in those who’ve struggled with living around other people.

As summer begins, they’re among the dozens of people weathering life under Toronto’s bridges, and in its parks, trails and ravines.

One year after encampments in high-profile locations such as Trinity Bellwoods Park and Lamport Stadium Park were thrust to the forefront of public debate, the number of camps citywide is down. Trinity Bellwoods is now empty of tents, but you can find makeshift structures and slung-up tarps in Toronto’s quieter, more concealed corners – with many remaining camps, like John’s, existing out of plain sight.

“I think it’s so important that people understand what’s happening,” said Dr. Stephen Hwang, a physician with St. Michael’s Hospital with a research focus on homelessness. That people still choose to live in ravines suggests Toronto is falling short of offering the help people need, he argued.

“The risk is not just that people will continue to be homeless on the street, or numbers will grow, but that we will become anesthetized to the problem – that we will stop seeing it as a human tragedy, and more as just a nuisance to be gotten rid of, ”Hwang said.

“Once the situation is allowed to grow, through inaction or inadequate action, people tend to lose their compassion.”

Outdoor homelessness swelled here and in other cities through the COVID-19 pandemic, and the city’s operations last summer to eject people from highly visible areas pushed the issue into the spotlight.

The city intends to keep those parks emptied, with plans to hire private security to do round-the-clock patrols of west-end Bellwoods, Alexandra Park, Lamport Stadium and Dufferin Grove. Mobile teams will cycle through the downtown east’s Moss Park and Barbara Hall Park.

In a statement, the city said it was committed to having its outreach workers take a “nonconfrontational” approach to those living outside – while stressing its goal of getting people indoors, and connecting them with resources on the path toward housing.

Overall, Toronto’s parks department counted 88 tents or other structures citywide on May 10, across 44 locations, versus more than 300 in 58 locations on the same day in 2021. Transportation Services, which monitors places such as the underside of bridges, also saw numbers go down in the last year.

But in spots such as the Rosedale Ravine and the Don Valley parklands – and even more visible places, such as Grange Park and Allen Gardens – scores of people are still living outside.

What John wants is housing – even a single room of his own to rent – but that goal has so far proved elusive. He told the Star he’d recently learned he was kicked off Toronto’s decades-long subsidized housing wait-list, after failing to keep his application up-to-date.

The evening he spoke to the Star, outreach worker Doug Johnson Hatlem wove through the bush, offering people water, snacks, clean socks and naloxone. John asked for candles – Johnson Hatlem said he did not have any, but could help with a request for a sleeping bag.

In another tent nearby, James Marley asked Johnson Hatlem if anyone could contact a housing agency on his behalf. His case illustrates the complexity of homelessness; he has an apartment, but has not slept there in months – not since his partner of 10 years died last fall.

The couple had lived in the same area, and he had not been able to bear going back since her death. He wanted a transfer, to another one of the agency’s units in a different neighborhood.

For now, he stays either in the ravine or in a tent behind Sanctuary Toronto, a church and community space downtown where Johnson Hatlem works. “It’s not easy out here,” Marley told the Star.

Community worker Diana McNally has seen a shift since last year, reporting more people staying in “underground” spaces and out of downtown. “They feel less monitored,” she said.

The most prominent camping site the city knew of, as of May 10, is the Lower Don Parklands – with 13 known tents or structures, up from seven last year. While the number of known camps in the Rosedale Ravine dropped, from 15 to five, there were camps this month in places such as Lavender Creek Trail and Charles Sauriol Conservation Area where they were not this time last year.

Hwang sees many reasons why someone might choose life in an encampment over a shelter. “Many people experience theft or assault when they’re staying in shelters, and they feel safer,” he said – noting shelters also came with restrictions, while the camps offer autonomy.

While bigger park camps could offer a sense of community, he said, “staying in a ravine, really, that appeals to someone who really wants to be left alone, and to be invisible.”

And some just could not reconcile the death happening in shelters, said McNally. Last year, an average of 4.2 homeless Torontonians died every week, with nearly half due to drug toxicity.

There are risks to living outdoors, Hwang noted – exposure to extreme cold or heat, and reduced access to services in remote areas. The night Johnson Hatlem visited the ravine, he returned to find a blaze had broken out at the Sanctuary camp. Police later laid an arson charge.

But if the city wants to bring people inside, Hwang believes it’s a matter of improving the indoor spaces available. “Rather than taking an enforcement approach, we need to say, ‘how do we make choosing an alternative, that we think would be better, more attractive?'”

Hwang pointed to the city’s efforts in Dufferin Grove last fall. After the clearings at other parks, observers said the city seemed to adopt a new approach. The city says it deployed teams to the park to forge “meaningful relationships,” while expediting access to housing. By its count, 25 people moved into housing from Aug. 11 to Dec. 23, while 88 accepted spaces in shelter hotels.

Hwang believes that effort validates the effectiveness of a nonenforcement approach to outdoor homelessness. He worries now about the city’s plan to close its 27 pandemic-era shelters – most hotels and motels – over two years.

“If that’s the location that people were successfully moving to instead of staying in encampments, then it just confirms the importance of having that option,” he said.

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