As winter closes in, the city’s most vulnerable hunker down in parks

As winter closes in, the city's most vulnerable hunker down in parks

On a brilliantly blue-sky Sunday morning, swishing through a downtown park, autumn leaves crunching pleasantly underfoot … and then something else crunching underfoot.

A syringe.

And this is but one reason why parents keep their children out of Allan Gardens.

Of course, discarded needles can be found just about anywhere across the city. So can the tents pitched in Toronto’s urban green spaces, which is completely in violation of Toronto’s bylaws. These homeless clusters, barnacles on the underside of a societal blight that continues to overwhelm the shelter system, have made Allan Gardens a no-go zone for neighborhood residents — those who own or rent hereabouts. Which is a struggle in itself — the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment $2,159 a month, 20 per cent higher than a year ago.

But the working class and the middle class don’t enjoy much in the way of public advocacy. Scant mention made of them, for instance, in the deeply flawed interim report by Toronto Ombudsman Kwame Addo released in July, undertaken in the aftermath of violent clashes between law enforcement and anti-poverty protesters when the city attempted to clear out tent occupants at Trinity Bellwoods — a clashing confrontation arising from resistance orchestrated by guardian angels of the homeless.

At Allan Gardens, the expanding encampment has resurrected memories from the summer of ’22, when tent bivouacs burgeoned in downtown parks, even as the city leased multiple hotels for the unhoused and a pandemic that had put space-distancing strains on shelters waned. Safer still — definitely more agreeable for some — to be outside where, frankly, nobody tells you what to do, which rules must be followed. Live rough long enough and one forget how to do otherwise.

There are dozens of tents in Allan Gardens. Area residents avoid it like the plague—which homelessness is, a societal plague, and no one has yet to invent a vaccine.

Since the start of the year, outreach staff from the city’s Encampment Office, Streets to Homes and agency partners have attended at Allan Gardens 408 times. Streets to Homes has completed 147 referrals into indoor accommodations, 86 in August and September alone. Building trust with encampment occupants is crucial but time-consuming, requiring methodical persistence. It’s quite evident that many tent dwellers are mentally ill, their condition either pre-existing or brought on by homelessness. Despite limitations, they’ve learned how to live hard. And, it must be said, a kind of communality has taken root because it’s human instinct to form bonds of mutual reliance.

Essential services have been delivered here and elsewhere, including port-a-potties in the park, referrals for medical supports, harm reduction, meals, laundry service and, crucially, access to a housing worker. While valiantly attempting to formulate longer-term housing plans. “That is the goal,” says city spokesperson Brad Ross. “Indoor accommodation, not having people relocate to another park, but to come inside.”

You might remember Jordn Geldart-Hautala, the 45-year-old Indigenous man who was basically confined to a wooden box less than 8-by-4 feet square, believed to be the last remaining “tiny home” built and distributed around the city’s encampments by a Good Samaritan, an act of benevolence brought to heel by the courts. Geldart-Hautala became a famous cause in May, under threat of being arrested over an outstanding warrant (issued in Quebec) if he stepped foot outside his box in Clarence Park, near Spadina. Intervention by a lawyer with the Community Justice Collective ultimately got the warrant quashed.

Now here Geldart-Hautala is, having transported his tiny domicile to Allan Gardens, though he won’t explain how that was accomplished. “I like it better here,” he tells the Star. “There are people who look out for me.” Then launches into a confusing tale about being “kidnapped by the cops,” taken against his will to Trenton and dumped there.

Unable to verify any of this. But both he and his wooden box are back, reconstituted at the edge of Allan Gardens where he intends to see out the winter—a forecast of what’s to come experienced in last week’s plunging temperatures. Decades of nomadic existence, though, have left Geldart-Hautala confidant that he’ll survive adequately. But would he not rather be inside, have a room of his own, a smidgen of comfort? “Not for what they’ve offered me.”

“He’s doing just fine here,” interjects Lynn Walker. “Aren’t you?”

They’d been having a companionable conversation, Geldart-Hautala and Walker, the latter a 62-year-old Métis who’s been living at Allan Gardens for 13 months. Walker uses a motorized scooter because of her various physical infirmities and receives a disability check, a huge chunk of it — upwards of $140 a month — spent on medication which she says isn’t covered. Her private insurance provider, she says, “cut me off.”

“I used to have a two-bedroom apartment, was paying $800 a month for it,” Walker recounts. But there were arguments with her landlady and eventually she was evicted. In any event, she was unhappy with suburban location, too far from public transit. “I don’t like Scarborough.”

For a while she stayed with one of her sons, but he was not much better off. “I was sleeping on the floor. Bed bugs and rocks.”

Another son she describes as being “in La-La-Land.” And a daughter is living in a car. “She’s been on the street for two years and into bad drugs.”

All of them skint.

Homelessness is, as Brad Ross emphasizes, tremendously complex. Family dynamics are tangled and torturous, exacerbated by poverty and ill mental health. Many have no one. They rely on the apparatus of social welfare — when they can plug into it — and the kindness of strangers. More fundamentally, they rely on their own ability to endure.

But they cannot endure in Toronto’s parks. It is too often a violent and perilous subsistence and not just for them. Last week in Burnaby, a female RCMP officer was fatally stabbed while accompanying a parks worker trying to get an encampment dweller to remove his tent. Global TV reports that the suspect, charged with first-degree murder, is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker with recent roots in Toronto.

Several people have died in Toronto encampment fires over the past three years. In 2021, Toronto Fire responded to 229 fire calls at encampments.

At this moment, the city is aware of 144 encampments across Toronto in 52 parks and ravines, 44 in right of way locations such as sidewalks or under bridges. The shelter system is currently accommodating more than 8,000 people nightly — more than ever before and 1,500 more a night than at this time last year.

The miserable situation will deteriorate as winter seizes the city, even with post-pandemic adjustments that will see Toronto segue from 2 meters bed separation in shelters to 1.25 meters in a phased approach that is estimated to increase capacity by 500 beds in the shelter system.

Everybody has to be somewhere: That’s the bottom line. For a great many, that somewhere is still in Toronto’s parks and ravines and underpasses. It’s no way for anyone to live. Not for them and not for us.