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In the summer of 2019, while walking through the perpetually buzzing Yonge and Dundas Square — Toronto’s little-sister imitation of New York City’s Times Square — I encountered a homeless man. He was Black like me, young like me and judging by his accent, Jamaican like me. All of this undoubtedly contributed to my motivation to stop and chat with him. But I had also long ago resolved to never cross the street, avert my eyes, pretend I didn’t hear, or ignore someone experiencing homelessness. I imagine it must be dehumanizing and isolating — not to mention a key contributor to mental illness — to have thousands upon thousands of people pass by you every day and for most of them to pretend you don’t exist. I stopped to talk to him.

Though I don’t remember how we got there, he ended up telling me his story. He had been in Canada for a few years, working a full-time job, living independently, hoping to get settled enough that he could sponsor his mother to join him in Toronto. Then, six months prior to our meeting, he was suddenly laid off. Without any close friends or family in Toronto, and unable to find another source of income — leaving him without the means to even fly back home to Jamaica — he became homeless within weeks. He intimated to me that he now struggled with depression and suicidal ideation. For him, the worst part about being homeless was not the hunger, packed shelters or sleeping outside, but that people do not see him as human.

“They don’t even look at you,” he told me, his voice straining against tears. 

Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square.

And we don’t. We know that experiencing homelessness is not a crime, and we know it shouldn’t be a judgement of an individual’s worth to society. But our actions, policies and design decisions speak louder than thoughts. Regardless of whether we show compassion on a personal level — and many of us don’t — the way our cities are built and policed reflects an assumption that there is some key human quality or virtue missing that makes people experiencing homelessness less worthy of humanity. In a public realm that does not cater to the needs of the unhoused, homeless folks effectively become perceived as intruders into “our” space. 

For instance, when obvious signs of mental illness are present in a public setting – which occurs frequently, since 67 per cent of the homeless population live with two or more diagnosable mental illnesses – we call 911. This criminalizes folks for attempting to survive in the only spaces reliably available to them: those that are public. And as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to re-shape our social fabric, a public landscape of tents and improvised shelters lays bare the inadequacies of Canada’s social safety net with greater urgency than ever before. 

On sidewalks and in parks and public squares, to be unhoused is to be unwelcome: just consider the rigidly uncomfortable “hostile architecture” of spikes, bench dividers and slanted seats designed to prevent people from lying down – or the “nuisance” tickets selectively issued by the police for trespassing, loitering or sleeping in parks. 

Bench on the sidewalk, with curved armrest divider in centre
Slanted benches with strategically placed middle armrests make it all but impossible to lie down. PHOTO: Cara Chellew
Bench with low separator bar in centre of the seat
Accessibility Measure or Exclusive Architecture?
Public space researcher Cara Chellew examines the subtle but meaningful differences between inclusive design and hostile architecture.

Even on the rare occasions that public assets are leveraged to provide housing, the community response evinces an apparent assault on the natural order. When COVID-19 respite shelters were opened to provide emergency shelter in affluent midtown Toronto, the CBC reported community members likening the situation to “living in a nightmare,” while shelter residents complained of discrimination. “The vast majority of us are good people, but apparently we are offensive that we even exist,” shelter resident Jen Reece told the CBC. “Oh no, somebody has to see somebody being poor for a minute.” But whose space is it anyway?

Housed or unhoused, our public spaces belong to all of us. And yet, we, the housed, sometimes feel that we deserve more ownership of our city and its amenities because we are in the privileged position to afford a private space to rest our heads, eat, congregate with loved ones and even indulge in our vices. Individuals who are not housed must, unfortunately, do all of the above — to live — in public, for all to see. Our shared environments, then, must function as more than just settings in which those who are housed can play, shop and do business; they must function as places where the unhoused can live, learn and recover.

Given that unhoused folks are also members of society — of our community — it stands to reason that our collective spaces ought to be designed for their needs. Instead of wishing the “homeless problem” away by herding people into particular areas of the city the rest of us can knowingly avoid — such as the corridor of Sherbourne between Dundas and Queen in Toronto — what if we did something radically different and instead utilized our shared assets to provide resources and services that can support unhoused people in getting back on their feet? 

In Tokyo, this accessible public washroom (designed by Fumihiko Maki) is part of an ambitious city-wide program to introduce inclusive public amenities throughout the city.

We have already seen a similar idea play out with the advent of supervised injection sites, typically situated in and around public spaces shared by homeless folks. Supervised injection sites have had a variety of positive impacts, including reduced injection behaviour, municipal cost-saving, and decreased overdose risk, according to a 2014 report by the Ontario HIV Treatment Network. The same report also suggests that supervised injection sites, “do not lead to any significant disruptions in public order or safety in the neighbourhoods where they are located.” In other words, our public spaces don’t need to be protected from the homeless, they need to be leveraged for the homeless. 

Toronto’s StudioAC has proposed transforming disused trucks into accessible public showers – while doubling as a canvas for works by local artists.

People experiencing homelessness require a variety of supports to get back on their feet. They range from: accommodation for disabilities, educational opportunities, employable skills training, mental health and substance use support, access to transportation, a safe place to shower, kitchens in which to prepare healthy food, access to phones, computers and of course, a physical address. 

Here are a few ideas for addressing these needs:

  • Fit public bathrooms with the amenities required for a shower and staff them with attendants that could provide a friendly face while handing out hygiene products. These public shower spaces could have dedicated hours of operation each day to increase dignified access.
  • Repurpose out-of-use TTC buses as mobile service hubs, equipped with wifi, laptops and staff support. These mobile hubs can provide case management, mental health support, educational opportunities and skills training. (In a similar vein, local designers StudioAC have proposed converting big rig trucks into public washrooms and showers).
  • Provide an address attached to PO Boxes – perhaps rebranded as suite number – to reduce the stigma for those seeking employment.
  • Introduce clear guidelines to ensure public design standards that eliminate hostile architecture while maintaining accessibility.
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While crowded parks and social distancing circles capture the urbanist imagination, COVID-19 exacerbates more fundamental spatial disparities.

These are simple ideas. And in a country as wealthy as ours, they can be executed quickly. Rather than trying to make homelessness invisible by moving unhoused folks away and hiding them from view, let’s try to solve the challenges that impact all of us by applying creativity and innovation to support people experiencing homelessness in the spaces we all share. Improvement instead of displacement. Now, more than ever, we will all benefit from a public realm that works for all of us.

As for that Jamaican man I encountered at Yonge and Dundas, I often think about how he is doing and if the world has been any kinder to him since we met. I wish I didn’t have to wonder. In the future – if we have leveraged our public spaces for the most vulnerable among us and invested in the proper supports that universally allow folks without shelter to become housed – we will know that everyone who falls on hard times will have a real second chance. 

Asante Haughton is an advocate for social justice causes and a storyteller specializing in narratives detailing the impact of family trauma on mental health. A veteran of the speaker circuit, Asante has presented across the globe, including a pair of TEDx talks. Asante was also named a CAMH 150 Difference Maker, recognizing his contribution to Canadian mental health discourse. 

Unhoused, Unwelcome? Public Space and the Stigma of Homelessness

Asante Haughton argues that public spaces need to be leveraged to support people experiencing homelessness.

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