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Tent City affects us all

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When our city appears on the CNN ticker in a headline that reads, “Shantytown in Toronto, Canada, raided,” you know something is wrong. Whatever happened to Toronto the Good, the city that was—and still is, in many respects—the envy of municipalities the world over?

Last Tuesday’s forced eviction of Tent City underscores far more widespread problems in Toronto—the dearth of affordable housing is only the tip of the iceberg in a litany of needs going unheeded by a city council that either can’t or won’t address them. Our housing shortage has led to an overcrowded shelter system that has forced more people onto the streets than ever before. Tent City was born out of desperation—an unlikely group bonding together to form some sort of community, however tenuous.

No one is denying that Tent City could not continue to exist on the polluted waterfront lands owned by Home Depot. Yes, they were illegal squatters and living conditions had become unsafe, with drugs and violence creeping into the area. But when Home Depot forcibly evacuated these people from the homes they had created for themselves after insisting for more than a year that they would not do so, they destroyed a community. To them, the residents of Tent City were just an illegal obstacle that needed to be removed, not real people to be treated fairly and with compassion.

Home Depot had the right to clear their land and thought a raid would be the easiest way to do it, despite promising Tent City residents, city councillor Jack Layton and homelessness action group Toronto Disaster Relief Committee that they would try to work out a compromise. Tuesday’s eviction happened so fast, residents were only able to gather a few possessions, including medicine and clothing, after the TDRC and other supporters spent a frantic few hours negotiating with Home Depot and city hall officials. Enough shelter spaces for the 100 residents were found only after much scrambling by city staff, despite Mayor Mel Lastman’s typically erroneous statement that there were 200 beds available.

Many of the people who lived in Tent City did so because they couldn’t handle life in the city’s overcrowded, often unsafe shelter system, which is stressed to the breaking point. Detractors trot out the line that these people should just get a job and get off the streets, but in the real world, things aren’t so black and white. Many people are just one layoff, one hard knock away from losing their home, their family, their sanity. We used to have a safety net to catch these people. Government is failing its own citizens, and the haves in our society seem to want nothing to do with the have-nots.

City council announced this week that it would fund a six-month trial project to house the evicted residents of Tent City. If they follow through, that may be a fine band-aid solution for the 100 or so residents, but what of the thousands of other homeless in Toronto? Is council going to find subsidized housing for them as well?

Government finally seems to be waking to up to the fact that our cities are dying of neglect—the City of Toronto has unveiled its official working plan for the future, and the federal Liberals will be looking at the issue of urban renewal this fall.

Let’s hope there is enough political will for these initiatives to succeed. Otherwise we are facing the prospect of many more Tent Cities in the future.