Richard Smith pokes his head out of his green and grey tent as his dog Pixie sleeps inside beside him.
The tent is draped in sleeping bags — improvised insulation in freezing temperatures that on this day feels like -12 C. Scattered around it are propane tanks he uses to cook, and empty water bottles. A frying pan, pot and dishtowel rest on a small wooden platform next to a large cooler.
Nearby, one of his neighbours collects wood for a stove that feeds into a tiny chimney poking out of the top of his own tent, where a single light bulb glows behind the nylon.
“A lot of people don’t even realize there’s people in them,” says Smith of their makeshift homes.
“We’re pretty tight, pretty good people. We check in on each other, that’s kind of the reason to be here.”
Smith is one of about a half dozen men, he says, who have set up camp under the Gardiner near Spadina Ave. in the shadow of some of the most expensive condos in the country. He says they’re staking out a sliver of privacy and protection from the elements in a city with a dwindling housing supply and a packed shelter system.
The city handed out eight notices to people like Smith, although he says he didn’t personally receive one, starting last Thursday. Officials told them to get out in 14 days, citing public safety issues. But as temperatures drop, amidst three homeless deaths in less than two weeks, advocates, and some of the men themselves, say there’s simply nowhere for them to go.
“It’s a Catch-22,” says Smith, who’s been camping here on and off for about two years after losing his apartment and job following an arrest.
“They say there’s places for us,” he adds. But he’d like to see them.
The city’s chief communications officer Brad Ross said notices were issued because of public safety issues with right of way, debris and reports of open flames and propane.
As of Thursday, according to a daily count posted on the city’s website, shelters hovered between 97 and 100 per cent occupied, except for family shelters in motels which were at 84 per cent.
“Yes shelters are crowded but there’s still capacity,” says Ross, adding the real goal is to help people find permanent housing, with the help of the city’s Streets to Homes staff.
“Whether it’s a room or an apartment, yeah it’s challenging but they continue to work through that and there are solutions out there,” he says.
“We can’t allow people to be sleeping in makeshift shelters and tents and shanties on sidewalks.”
Smith says he’s been assigned a Streets to Homes worker, who’s been tasked with helping him out of the tent and into something with four walls. He says he’s been trying to follow up but hasn’t been able to reach them.
In the meantime he’s heard the shelters are packed, and prefers the camp, where the underbelly of the expressway and the soaring concrete pillars that support it provide some shelter from the wind and snow.
Garbage is strewn around this stretch of land just south of CityPlace — a heart-shaped baking pan lying facedown, old suitcases, needles. A giant yellow stuffed Pikachu rests on a brown couch beside an overturned desk chair, and half of a blue bike frame pokes out from the frozen dirt.
Aside from the woosh of cars, it’s quiet and still. Most of the men are inside their tents taking refuge from the cold.
On one of the pillars someone has written in black bold letters, “Take me Home?”
Smith says he stays as he also doesn’t want to be separated from Pixie, who he credits with helping him get through some addiction issues. Some, but not all, shelters allow pets.
“She keeps me alive,” he says with a smile, of the lab-mix.
“We just feel in love.”
Ross said he can’t speak to Smith’s particular situation, but said encampments are regularly visited by Streets to Homes outreach workers and anyone having trouble reaching them should call 311, the city’s non-emergency hotline.
After a harsh winter last year, and criticism from the ombudsman that the city gave incorrect information about capacity on at least two occasions, officials pledged to do better this year with a winter plan that included opening three new 24-hour respite sites in huge dome-like structures.
So far, only one of the centres — a 100-bed facility in Liberty Village run by the St. Felix Centre — is open. Ross says the city anticipates the opening of other two in March and April.
On Tuesday, asked about the evictions, Mayor John Tory said the notice is meant to be “more compassionate,” rather than clearing people out immediately.
“Even in instances where we’ve had quite large encampments in the past all of those people, I think, without exception have been found alternate places to to live,” he said.
“But make no mistake, we have to take these encampments out because it is just not a viable proposition to have people deciding they’re going to set up tents or other kinds of structures like this anywhere they so choose to do so.”
On Thursday, advocates marched downtown, calling for the city to declare an emergency and add 2,000 shelter beds. The rally comes after the deaths of a woman sleeping in an ally near St. Andrew Subway station, who was run over by a garbage truck on Tuesday, and Crystal Papineau, who got stuck in a clothing donation bin last week near Dovercourt and Bloor.
Homeless advocate and street nurse Cathy Crowe told the Star there’s actually been three deaths — an Indigenous man also died in an ally last week.
Crowe says the city’s capacity numbers don’t tell the whole story. Practically all alternatives — not only the shelters, but the Out of the Cold programs, run by faith based organizations where people can sleep and get a meal during the winter — are full.
“Essentially there might be three spots at this respite or two spots left on the floor at an Out of the Cold, but even the Out of the Colds are now reporting that the majority of their sites are running over capacity and that’s never, ever happened.”
The situation, with “mats on the floor, approximately a foot and a half away from the next person,” is “ just inhumane and it’s unworkable,” she says.
Instead of evicting the people under the Gardiner and others like them across the city who are trying to “create a nook of comfort and safety in very visible places,” the city should work with them around fire safety and increase their street outreach, Crowe says.
Greg Cook, who works at downtown drop-in centre Sanctuary, says the industrial land along the Gardiner, not just at the Spadina overpass, has long been home to scattered tents, but he’s seen more spring up in recent years as the housing crisis intensifies.
“By and large historically the city hasn’t cared as much and there hasn’t been the kind of complaints there are now just because people aren’t living right next to it,” he says, noting things changed with the construction of nearby condos.
Back at the camp, Smith says he’d like to stay, at least for now.
“I’m getting pretty comfortable,” he says.
But he’s not sure how long he’ll be there, or where he’d go next if he had to leave.
“I don’t know,” he says.
“I can’t really answer that question.”
‘They’re just doing whatever they have to do to survive’
Raymond Sackaney, who describes himself as being “semi-homeless” since Christmas, doesn’t have a tent at the camp but comes down from time to time.
“I just ended up walking down this way and I seen all these tents and I wanted to see if I’d recognize anybody, and there’s some people I’d seen on the street before,” he says.
“I just thought maybe there’d be some people down here that I could keep in contact with.”
He sometimes goes to Seaton House shelter but mostly sleeps in a 24-hour McDonald’s or Tim Hortons.
The shelters are “basically all packed and full and there’s no available space to actually sleep and rest,” he says, looking around at the camp.
“I don’t know what else they’d do with this so-called area you know? They’re just doing whatever they have to do to survive.”
Terence Campos, 40, is originally from Eglinton and Keele area but says he’s been living in a tent in the encampment for maybe six years.
He has many friends in the camp and even shares a birthday with Sackaney.
“I did the parking lot stuff, sleeping in staircases,” he says.
“You get in trouble so you come outside.”
Chris, who did not give his last name, says he doesn’t have a tent here but has been coming to the camp to stay with friends “off and on” for three years.
He often picks through the garbage where he finds useful things, such as the red sweatshirt and toque he’s wearing.
“They don’t appreciate stuff, they just throw stuff out,” he says of the residents of nearby CityPlace condos.
“It’s worth a lot of money.”
With files from David Rider
May Warren is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11