Our Toronto churchyard camp was a safe place. Then, the city cleared it.

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A photo of a churchyard after dark, with debris littered on the ground

The churchyard outside the Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, where people have been living for two years now. (Photograph taken by Steve Russell via Getty Images).

For more than 10 years, I have been the priest at the Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, a tiny, historic Anglican church at the north end of Kensington Market in downtown Toronto. It’s always been known as a safe and welcoming place: the Reverend Cam Russell and his wife started giving out food from the parish hall in the 1970s, and at least one or two people have been sleeping in the churchyard ever since. In the spring of 2022, tents started to appear in this churchyard. By that summer, they’d grown into a large encampment. 

The city was dealing with a pandemic, a polarized economy between extreme wealth and poverty, a housing and shelter crisis of epic proportions, a breakdown of social solidarity, and the growing effects on climate change. These issues are like waves that crash over us. But they strike most at those who are made marginal in our system—racialized people, Indigenous people who carry the generational trauma of residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, people who are ill or weak or unable to cope with a viciously competitive society and people for whom one piece of bad luck can turn into an avalanche. These people might have nowhere else to turn but our churchyard. There was a series of violent encampment evictions in parks in 2021, and they’re heavily policed. Shelters are always overcrowded and turn away record numbers of people.

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The yard was home to some of the people arriving in 2022. It became their home—in some cases the only stable one they’d had for years. These were people with complex needs who had been evicted, were in and out jail, were chased from one park to another, and were often evicted. And over time we—the church community and neighbours who supported us—learned about their lives: about how one person was finely attuned to shifts in weather and the seasonal patterns of the plants, about another person’s philosophical musings, about another’s art projects and impulsive generosity. They became part our story just as we did theirs. The artificial flowers that adorn the altar of our chapel were a gift given by a resident from the encampment last Easter. My skirt, which I am wearing now as I write this, was also a present. When I look out at the yard, it reminds me of the person who told her she had to stay there. “to protect the grass and the plants.”

People came and went. Some people stayed for only a few nights until they found a couch or bed to sleep on. Some stayed months, including an elderly woman with a cancer diagnosis, who was known as Mama by all. Her Toronto Community Housing flat had been taken over and occupied by a gang. She needed a place for her to stay while the lengthy process of rehousing was completed. 

I can’t pretend that our work supporting the encampment was easy. We worked with many service agencies and organized harm reduction supplies. We also handled garbage collection and mail deliveries, provided first-aid and medical care connections, helped with mental illness crises, and spoke to angry or uncomfortable neighbours. Our staff and volunteer resources were needed to complete this work. This means that, above all else, we have to live every day, each time we walk by the yard, with a heartbreaking knowledge that our most vulnerable community members, who are encamped on a churchyard because they lack better options, are living in tents and trying to do laundry, manage serious medical conditions or lead a dignified life while encamped.

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In the depths winter, our volunteers have spent countless phone calls to Central Intake – the only number in Toronto that provides access to shelter beds – trying desperately find space for those who attend our evening drop in dinner. In 2022 we were told that the best option for people who visited our evening drop-in dinner was to wait in front of the Streets to Homes offices on Peter Street in case there was a chair available in the lobby at some point in the night. Now, that’s not even available. Tents are set up outside the Peter Street Office. We are advised to keep calling, over and over again. It often seems that the only way anyone can access a bed in one of the few shelter-hotels is to be present in an encampment on the exact day that it is cleared—or else, perhaps, to be sleeping on the TTC in the immediate wake of some media-grabbing episode of violence. 

There have been nights of bitter cold when the best and only thing I could do—for someone who was sick, who didn’t have shoes, who couldn’t even make it to a 24-hour Tim’s—was to walk them to the encampment and ask if anyone would let them share a tent for the night. And there was always a person who said yes. No one is turned away. People cut each other’s hair, watch each other’s possessions, reverse overdoses, help each other through bad days. Everyone has come to this place because they need a place. And we were the one undefended area.

A photo of the Reverend Maggie Helwig,wearing large purple glasses and a purple scarf, looking to the side

The Reverend Canon Maggie Helwig has been the priest at St. Stephen-in-the-Fields for more than 10 years. (Photo by Anne-Marie Jackson via Getty Images).

The Department of Transportation informed the public in the fall of 2022 that the area used for over 100 years as a churchyard was actually a “city asset,”A transportation right-of way. Like every other front yard on either side of the street, it was a remnant of Bellevue Avenue’s 1858 origins as a grand boulevard that began right outside the door of the church. Notices of a “dwell in street”On the trees, there were signs indicating that the by-laws had been violated. 

What followed was an intense year of negotiation, conflict, compromise, and crisis. The final date is November 2023. the tenuous safety of the churchyard was broken. I received a telephone call informing me the encampment will be cleared in less 48 hours. The same evening, city workers arrived and delivered the message to residents.

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I know that there were people in the City of Toronto trying to make this eviction a little less brutal. They made a difference. Shelter Services had reserved shelter-hotel rooms for the people in the encampment who wanted them—though this also meant that others seeking indoor space would not be able to access those rooms. We know many people were turned down that night. Some people took rooms, which is a good thing. Some people had left the previous night, mostly to go to other encampments near by. Some of our long-term residents were squeezed into the small alcoves near the wall, which are unquestionably church property. Early afternoon, one person refused move. They had accepted referrals from shelter-hotels on two occasions in the last year, but were evicted for trivial reasons within days.

I stood with this person for hours, bringing them hot water bottles, French vanilla coffee, and vegetarian curry, as they wrapped themselves in blankets and whispered quietly prayers. After sunset, while church volunteers were serving the weekly drop-in, city staff brought in a machine known as the Claw. It is a massive piece of heavy equipment that grabs tents, recycling bins, and other belongings without regard for their contents and drags it into a garbage compactor.

The other resident and I watched, protected by an umbrella on the patio. But the police didn’t come. Some supporters blocked the Claw, while others gathered the belongings of those who had been dispersed in a hurry. The Claw moved in a circular motion across the narrow street. The apartment building next door was flooded with neighbours who ran down when they saw it. 

By the time the event ended, it was almost midnight when an eight-foot high security fence was put up around half of a churchyard that the Department of Transportation now claims as theirs. A few days later more city trucks arrived, and they deposited huge concrete block over the fenced area. The yard which was once a place people could go when they were hungry or lost or in need, has now been fenced in and blocked.

When the crews left that resident was still there with their tent and belongings. As I write, they are still there. Others have returned, or arrived for the first time—not a surprising development when we have people being directed here by Central Intake or discharged from hospitals to our meal programmes, with nowhere to go after that. The tents are more crowded than ever, with concrete blocks and the security fence filling up half of the space. It’s even harder to keep things clean, but the people do their best. In the extreme cold people stack old mattresses to block the wind. We provide what we can at the church: hot food and first aid. Someone who is willing to listen will also be available. The human community which has grown here is not destroyed.

‘ Credit:
Original content by Macleans.ca: “Our Toronto churchyard camp was a safe place. The city then cleared it.

Read the complete article at https://macleans.ca/society/kensington-market-encampment-toronto/

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