Deep in Toronto’s ravines, in the nooks of its parks and under its bridges, hides a sprawling population of temporary homes.
Some are spartan: a single sheet and a pillow next to a fallen tree. Others have makeshift walls and doors. Some have chairs and couches, one features a broken stroller. Others are set up by campfires.
They are signs of the harsh life some choose over a bed in the city’s shelter system.
Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Ministries Toronto, a charity that helps those on the margins of society, heads to the city’s ravines and larger parks a few times a year to check on those living in the makeshift sites.
“It’s a difficult life to live,” Cook, 38, says as he looks at a large tent tucked under a bridge at the edge of a ravine.
Scores of needles litter the site. There’s also a library card, old coffee cups and food wrappers. The tent reminds Cook of a time a man overdosed and died inside a similar dwelling.
There are long bouts of silence as he walks, making his way through a stretch of one ravine where many makeshift homes are clustered together.
“They say they keep an eye on each other,” Cook says of the area’s inhabitants. “They don’t even know each other’s names and they don’t really hang out, but they keep an eye on the other guy’s stuff.”
Canada’s most populous city, where the cost of housing continues to rise, doesn’t keep track of the total number of such encampments, but it does try to record the makeshift homes it has removed.
In 2017, the city removed 313 encampments from parks and ravines, citing a bylaw preventing people from camping in parks overnight. The year before, it removed 204 camps, 142 in 2015, and 110 in 2014.
Jane Arbour, a city spokeswoman, notes that the numbers have increased in the last two years because there were more city workers trying to get those living in parks and ravines into affordable housing.
The plight of Toronto’s homeless came under scrutiny late last year as several spells of extreme cold highlighted a lack of shelter space. Facing repeated calls to take action, the city opened temporary shelters to try to deal with the problem. Everyone, from the local government to frontline workers, agrees a long-term housing solution is needed.
Despite the extra shelter beds, however, those who don’t have a home sometimes prefer the outdoors to the spaces offered by the city, Cook says.
His point is illustrated by a conversation he has with a man before heading into the ravines. The man used to sleep outdoors in a parkette, as well as underground garages, and although he now spends nights in a shelter, he tries to get out by 5 a.m.
“Waking up next to 100 people isn’t very fun,” the man says.
Cook says the man’s response is fairly common.
“Sometimes people prefer to stay outside if it isn’t too cold. They just want their own space, which is hard to find in Toronto’s shelter system,” he says.
He tries to compare it to something more tangible for people who have trouble understanding homelessness and the difficulties obtaining permanent housing.
“It’s like looking for a job you really want. You might make it all the way to the last interview before you’re rejected. But it keeps happening,” he says. “At some point you have to say that’s no longer an option so you establish a different option … So maybe you’re going to make an encampment in the valley.”
Toronto’s downtown development is also a factor, Cook says, as he looks at three campsites just a hundred metres from a subway station and some of the city’s most expensive real estate.
“I think that’s partially why this ravine works,” he says. “You can pop up, panhandle by the Tim Hortons and there’s lots of foot traffic. It’s close to mental health services and there’s a church nearby where they can get hot meals. Most importantly, they can walk everywhere. They don’t need to spend $146 on a metro pass.”
He stops himself, worried he’s glorifying living life outdoors.
His greater point, he explains, is that people need to be close to services they use. The current problem for many, he says, is people are now only able to find affordable housing in the outer reaches of the city, yet the services they need aren’t nearby. This forces a difficult choice.
“Some choose to live in the woods. They’re choosing hot meals and mental health services over housing,” Cook says. “Can you imagine that choice?”
He falls silent again.