Taka was exhausted. After a string of nights spent outdoors, exposed to the elements in the depth of a Toronto winter, the 58-year-old was utterly spent. “I went to the hospital to get a jacket and ask about assisted suicide.” It is a harrowing recollection, and one that shapes the opening moments of director Zack Russell’s documentary Someone Lives Here. Then, after another agonizing week — spent on a park bench and in a tent — a tiny, insulated wooden shelter arrived, and with it, a semblance of hope.
While Taka’s narration frames the film, its central figure is Khaleel Seivwright, the carpenter-turned pandemic-era folk hero who built Taka’s wooden refuge and dozens like it throughout the city. Set to premiere at this year’s Hot Docs film festival, the documentary follows Seivwright as he builds and distributes dozens of life-saving shelters in encampments across Toronto. There’s an arresting intimacy to watching him at work, whether meticulously fitting a door or installing a fire alarm, which underscores the moral clarity of his mission.
By the time Someone Lives Here begins, Seivwright is a cult figure. As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the city’s ongoing housing crisis became increasingly dire. Already under-resourced, Toronto’s shelters hit capacity and became increasingly unsafe, all as job losses mounted. Never intended as more than a stopgap, the shelters offered a tangible way for Seivwright to put his skills to use. “I’ve never seen so many people staying outside in parks, and this is something I could do to make sure people staying outside in the winter could survive,” he told the CBC in October 2020, shortly after quitting his job to focus on building tiny shelters.
But the city’s broader social and political tensions are never far away. Early in the film, we follow Seivwright on a nighttime shelter delivery to a downtown park. The sequence plays out like a high-wire thriller, with Seivwright and the residents constantly on alert for the cops. It’s a well-founded fear. Since the early days of the pandemic, eviction notices and police surveillance are an ever-present accompaniment to encampment life.
And even as the tiny shelter campaign garners widespread public sympathy — Seivwright initially receives a congratulatory phone call from a municipal representative — the threat of eviction and violence looms increasingly large. As eviction notices mount and a coordinated campaign to forcibly remove encampment residents takes shape behind the scenes, the City of Toronto files an injunction against Seivwright to cease building shelters, describing structurally unsafe and highly flammable structures illegally deposited on municipal property.
The tactic is shrouded in the language of bureaucracy and procedure, and the human welfare at the heart of Seivwright’s mission surrendered to the higher power of municipal by-laws. Then, when a tiny-shelter resident dies in a fire caused by their heater, Seivwright’s heart breaks. But his resolve strengthens. The fire department deems the shelters unsafe, yet thorough tests are never conducted. By contrast, we see Seivwright lighting his shelters — which are designed to be heated by the body — with a blowtorch, leaving only a black scuff on the exterior insulation. He even wheels one over to a nearby firehouse. It impresses the local firefighters, but to little avail.
It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you how it all ends. The City of Toronto eventually spends some $2-million forcibly evicting residents from parks, and Seivwright’s tiny shelters are systematically removed. The scenes are harrowing to watch, laying bare the violence recently outlined in an Ombudsman report released on March 24, which cited infringements on residents’ privacy; secrecy and a dearth of communication about police-led clearings; a lack of outreach; and a manufactured urgency to “clear encampments quickly instead of focusing on the needs of the people living in them.”
For all that, Seivwright never intended the tiny shelters as a substitute for permanent affordable housing. And if there is any merit in accusations about the danger of shelters and encampments, the implicit logic is that the public sector can offer better. But does it? Three months after the 2021 encampment evictions, 92 per cent of people still didn’t have permanent homes. Compared to an over-crowded and under-funded shelter system — one where people are turned away on a nightly basis — insulated park shelters offered a safer alternative. As Taka put it, extolling her insulated abode, “I’ve never been in a shelter where I felt as good as I feel in this house.”
In 2023, the end of COVID-era emergency funding means that the homelessness crisis is poised to worsen as the gap in the City’s budget grows. Barring new funding, numerous shelters will likely close next year. As for the parks? Part of the City’s rationale in clearing them of encampments was to “restore” and “clean” them for regular public use. That hasn’t gone so well either. Today, the site of the erstwhile Trinity Bellwoods encampment remains a patch of dirt; the parkland was never meaningfully restored as a green space. And beyond the former encampment sites, the same goes for the public realm writ large. In Riverdale Park, for example, even a landmark skyline view is paired with a stretch of dry mud. And good luck finding a working water fountain, a public restroom, or a trash can.
When it came to justifying the state violence used to clear the encampment sites, the City summoned up the language of a compassionate and robust civic bureaucracy. Residents would be moved to better, safer accommodations, while parks would be restored for public use. In the end, the only well-funded element of the plan was the police. Today, the reality that the city is undergoing managed decline is hard to avoid.
The public sector’s failure to live up to its promises to provide secure housing and revitalize public spaces – though both ends might only be purely cynical justifications for encampment evictions – has ironically fuelled an inverse rhetoric that favours the privatization of the public realm. When Sidewalk Labs made its pitch to redevelop the Quayside neighbourhood, it proposed a scintillating future — but one in which both the technologies of urban data collection and the public policies that govern it would be handed over to the Google affiliate. For smart city dreams to come true, the functions of the public sector would be handed over to a more competent, innovative, well-resourced and forward-looking entity. In exchange for consigning public governance to a private entity, we’d be rewarded with a techno-utopian dreamland that only Google could deliver.
Fortunately, the Faustian bargain never came to pass. A few kilometres away, however, a more blatant privatization plan now threatens Ontario Place. Led by Austrian developers Therme Group in collaboration with prominent local architecture and planning firms, the proposal calls for a privately operated, for-profit waterpark — complete with a massive publicly subsidized underground parking garage — to be built on provincially owned waterfront land. Never mind that the scheme is little more than a Great Wolf Lodge dolled up in the vocabulary of health and wellness, the renderings deliver a spectacle that our cash-strapped municipality can hardly hope to compete with. What makes such visions so compelling — and so dangerous — is that the only seeming alternative is public austerity.
There’s a hypocrisy at the heart of it all. We are quick to clamp down on the unhoused, fuelled by the promise that the public sector can do better. And we are quick to be seduced by privatization, fuelled by the promise that the public sector could never do as well. While the two issues are disparate in almost every way — shaped by different levels of government and political circumstances — both reflect the same abdication of civic responsibility.
Ahead of a mayoral by-election, Canada’s biggest is mired in a cycle of managed decline.