Kensington Market encampment remains with support from Church

Mar 27, 2024 | GTA/Local News, Headlines, News

The encampment at St.Stephen-In-The-Fields church was a “safe haven” according to its Reverand, Maggie Helwig.

On Nov. 24, 2023, the City of Toronto cleared the encampment which had been there since the spring of 2022.

A large mechanical claw removed the tents and the city disposed of any belongings that remained. Several residents were displaced, some accepting shelter accommodations and others moving to nearby encampments.

In the days and weeks following, the city installed large concrete blocks and fences on the property.

Despite these efforts, the encampment remains, supported in large part by St.Stephen-In-The-Fields Church and its Reverand, Maggie Helwig.

Humber News spoke with Helwig about life at the encampment since that November clearing.

Q: What’s happening there today?

A: Everybody talks about the eviction in November. It was never a complete eviction. It was an attempted eviction, but it was never fully successful.

Half of the church yard is fenced off and has concrete blocks, but the other half, as well as the small area that’s actually church property, people have continued to live in those areas. So there was never a point when the encampment wasn’t there.

Despite attempts to evict the encampment, it has continued to exist there.

Q: When the concrete blocks were installed, there were conversations about whether it was even following city code?

A: They put concrete blocks on everything, immediately everyone started calling the city about the trees and compressing the roots of the trees and how you can’t put concrete blocks that close to trees.

So they came back the next day and they took away some of the concrete blocks around one tree and left the other tree because they thought that it was burnt and it was dead.

We now have a weird kind of Minecraft game in our front yard with blocks and gaps. And then people throw garbage over the fence, of course, because college is a main street and there’s lots of students and people and garbage gets thrown over the fence and it just builds up in there because we can’t get in there to clean up garbage.

Q: Garbage is a bit of a theme, right? Can you tell me about what the city was saying about garbage cleanup?

A: The city’s position is that city staff cannot clean up garbage themselves from the encampment because of the danger of needles. So their position is that city staff will only take what is put in a bin.

We have found it very difficult to coordinate having our people there to get stuff into bins at the right time for the city pickup because they come on a very fixed and early schedule. It’s been a challenge. We’ve ended up getting the blame for fire risk, although we are trying.

A couple of weeks ago, we actually spent nearly $4,000 from the church budget to have a large quantity of garbage fall away because of the impossibility of coordinating with city vehicles to get a large quantity of garbage removed.

Meetings with the city ended after the attempted eviction and I no longer have channels of communication with anyone except the fire captain. We feed 500 people a week and we’re already in deficit to try to get things cleaned out.

A few days after that, the city arrived for a cleanup, which they had not told us about, found that everything was essentially already cleaned up and I guess to make themselves feel like they had something to do, grabbed all the blankets and tarps that people had spread on the fence to dry. So people lost a bunch of blankets and tarps that they were trying to dry out in the outlet. Yeah. So it’s very poorly coordinated right now.

It’s a weird situation. It’s like the city’s sort of trying to pretend that the encampment isn’t there, but they can’t completely do that, and they don’t want to talk to me, but if they don’t talk to me, we can’t coordinate.

Q: What is the encampment like right now? Can you tell me a bit about the residents and what they’re going through?

A: The attempt to evict was extremely traumatic and destabilizing. I think we saw the remaining residents, almost all go into a bad emotional spiral after that event. Some of them are no longer there. We don’t know where one of them has gone. Actually, we’re a little concerned because we’re not sure where he is.

The other has moved to a different encampment. Two of the long-time people are still there. They’re a little on edge because they never know what’s coming day to day. But they’re still there.

One of the people who’s living on site is actually one of the people who went into a shelter hotel the day of the attempted eviction and now he’s back in a tent. So that tends to be how shelter hotels where people don’t stay there long.

Q: Why does the church support the encampment?

A: The church is here to be a safe and supportive space for people who need that. The church traditionally all through its history has been a place of sanctuary.

This church in specific has always dedicated itself to trying to be there for the community, whatever that meant, whatever community needs present themselves to us. We try to be there, we try to support that, we try to provide safety and support as best we can.

Q: What should the city be doing to support both the church and the residents of the encampments?

A: Short term, accept that people are living in encampments because that is their best option and provide them with what they need to live there more safely and more comfortably.

Provide fire extinguishers, provide fire retardant tents, provide safer ways of keeping warm in the winter, provide more insulated sleeping bags, more insulated clothing, hand warmers, foot warmers, you know, whatever technology is available to help people stay warm more safely. Provide more bathroom facilities, more needle disposal facilities and more harm reduction supplies.

Just accept in the short term that this is, in fact, the best solution people have been able to find and help make it better.

In the long term, they have to think more creatively about what kinds of shelter and housing solutions are going to create the community of mutual support that people have in an encampment. Because shelters and housing treat people as atomized individuals, and people don’t live as atomized individuals, people live as a community.

People have found community in encampments, and that’s part of the appeal. We need to build more of that into our thinking about shelter and housing options. How do we create options that allow people to have that sense of community that they might have in an encampment, but in an indoor, heated, dignified, proper accommodation?