Last fall, as the temperature started to drop and the first signs of winter approached in Toronto, carpenter Khaleel Seivwright began building small wooden shelters for people experiencing homelessness. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of people living in makeshift tent encampments in parks and other public spaces across the city has dramatically increased.
“I’ve never seen so many people staying outside in parks,” Seivwright told the CBC in October. “[Building shelters] is something that I could do to make sure whoever was staying outside in the winter would be able to survive.”
Made of a wood frame, lined with a thick layer of fibreglass insulation and wrapped in fire-resistant Rockwool exterior insulation, each four-by-eight-foot shelter has a small casement window, a door with a lock and wheels at the base of each corner. Designed to be heated by the occupant’s body heat, the shelters can maintain a temperature of around 16 degrees Celsius in minus 20 degree weather, Seivwright says. They are also equipped with a smoke and carbon monoxide detector and a fire extinguisher, since accidental fires and arson are a concern at encampment sites. And each one costs around $1,000 in new materials and takes eight hours to build. Seivwright teamed up with Encampment Support Network (ESN), a grassroots group that formed in the beginning of the pandemic to bring supplies to six encampments in downtown Toronto, to deliver the shelters.
After Seivwright’s story went viral in October, he raised over $220,000 through his GoFundMe to go towards building materials and renting a garage workshop in Toronto’s Corktown neighbourhood. A carpenter for eight years — who also grew up spending his summers working in construction with his dad — Seivwright decided to build the shelters for a simple reason: he saw people in need and he knew he had the skills to help.
But the City of Toronto has a long, fraught relationship with tent encampments, and tensions have escalated further during the pandemic. On February 12, the City filed an injunction application with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice against Seivwright to stop him from building “unsafe wooden structures and illegally depositing them on City property, including in parks,” and relocated pre-existing shelters. The City argues the shelters pose a risk to encampment residents, first responders and surrounding neighbourhoods, noting that in 2020, fire services responded to 253 fires at encampments, a 250 per cent increase over the same period in 2019. Now the money raised from Seivwright’s GoFundMe will now go towards his legal fees, with the excess being donated to ESN.
The hearing date for Seivwright’s injunction has yet to be released, but he and his lawyers are asking the city to drop its application or they will move forward with a constitutional fight. “It’s difficult to predict what the contours of the case will be when we don’t have the evidence [the City] intends to rely on at this point,” says Samara Secter, one of the lawyers representing Seivwright, in an interview with Azure. “But what I can say is that the City is doing an inadequate job of providing shelter for unhoused people. The shelter system is often at capacity and individuals have benefited from the tiny shelters. Mr. Seivwright was only acting to reduce harm.”
From the outset, Seivwright has acknowledged that his tiny buildings aren’t a permanent solution. But they have become a necessary stopgap during a time when city-run facilities for those experiencing homelessness are full and other spaces that could provide temporary cover overnight, like 24-hour fast food restaurants, are closed.
There is also precedent for local governments coming around to support unsanctioned grassroots-driven architecture in parks. In Moss Park, frontline workers operated an overdose prevention site out of a tent and later a 40-foot trailer after a rash of opioid overdoses in the summer of 2017. After nine months of operating illegally, the site received funding, federal approval and a permanent home within a nearby community health centre.
The City could have worked with Seivwright to ensure his shelters were safe – he was open to collaborate – but instead it’s taking legal action. The pandemic has highlighted the power of mutual aid efforts, like ESN and care-mongering groups, that have organically sprouted up to help the most vulnerable who fall through the cracks. But it’s also exposed the inherent schism between community organizing and government. Last year, the City removed a community mini fridge located outside a storefront on Queen West in downtown Toronto, citing an antiquated bylaw related to abandoned appliances posing a safety risk to children. It has also cleared tents and tiny shelters from parks, sometimes with residents’ belongings still inside. (In a press statement, the City says structures are only removed if they are abandoned or after city staff offer individuals space in the shelter system or converted hotel rooms.)
While Toronto’s local government is currently failing to provide adequate temporary shelter, there has been action towards long-term strategies. In response to the housing crisis intensified by the pandemic, last spring City Council fast-tracked two modular supportive housing projects, designed by local firm Montgomery Sisam, to be built on underused and vacant City-owned land. The buildings’ units come fully-furnished with a kitchenette and an accessible private bathroom; tenants have access to support services. By the end of the year, a total of 200 units will be occupied.
The pandemic offers an opportunity for the local architecture and design community to step up, as Shawn Micallef notes in the Toronto Star – just as it galvanized around preventing the destruction of the historical Dominion Foundry building, creating speculative proposals and renderings of how the site could be repurposed. That same enthusiasm has not translated to the issue of chronic homelessness. Architects, landscape architects and planners have a deep knowledge of public policy regulating the built environment, and are well placed to advocate for Seivwright’s shelters and Toronto’s encampment communities.
Yet, the worlds of architecture and urbanism often feel far removed from the lived experiences of the most vulnerable. As both designers and advocates, architects can play a critical role in supporting emergency accommodations that are safe, supportive and dignified, as well as equitable public spaces that can be used by all residents.
“It might seem random that some carpenter has just decided to build these [shelters], not knowing who any of these people are, and just dropping these boxes throughout the city,” said Seivwright in a video statement released March 2. “I guess I’d like to say: I’ve slept outside in the winter, I’ve stayed in a tent for months, and it sucks. I understand the physical difficulties of what a lot of these people are going through. And [building shelters] is something I know that can help.”
Legal action against Khaleel Seivwright, a carpenter building shelters for the homeless, raises questions about the role of architects in housing justice.