Funding for Shelter from the Storm
In 1998, a few homeless people started camping out on a big unused lot on Toronto's harbourfront in an industrial area. Over the years, the faces changed, with most squatters staying a short time and then moving on. Few of them were able to stomach the harsh winters.
Some of the homeless people on the site had recently arrived in Toronto looking for work. Others had drug or alcohol addictions or mental health issues. What these people all had in common was that they couldn't find affordable accommodations and that they couldn't bear to stay in overcrowded emergency shelters.
The scattered tents and lean-tos on the old industrial site became known as Tent City and, in the first years, didn't get much attention. There were, after all, many small encampments in Toronto's ravines, parks and under bridges.
During the century before Tent City, this site was home to factories and smelters which left a legacy behind in the form of heavy metals and other toxins in the soil. Home Depot, a large North American chain of hardware stores, bought the site with the intention of building a big box-style store there, just a few minutes from the downtown core. But their business plans were thwarted when Toronto City Council refused to amend zoning bylaws to allow the development. Home Depot hung on to ownership of the property, fuelling rumours that the land would be resold at a profit when Toronto's harbourfront was redeveloped or if and when Toronto was awarded the Olympic Games.
In 1999, the city moved to get the twenty Tent City residents off the site and into city-run shelters. The squatters resisted the push and to their aid came community activists, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. The eviction was stopped and the homeless residents stayed on, knowing that no matter how temporary, this encampment of tents and rough shelters was the best home they'd see for some time.
The provincial Ministry of the Environment issued an order in 2000 against the property owner to remove the Tent City squatters from the highly toxic land, citing the dangers to human health. Home Depot thus became liable for fines levied by the Province of Ontario if it did not act against the inhabitants. Before Home Depot reacted, the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, which had been providing survival aid to the residents, launched a campaign to stabilize and publicize Tent City as a symbol of the homeless crisis. With three donated pre-fab one-room houses, food, clothing and many volunteers, the TDRC strengthened the encampment during sub-zero temperatures and brought in the media to witness the effort. The TDRC, describing homelessness as a national man-made disaster, was intent on using Tent City to focus public attention on the crisis in housing. The residents were willing participants. This public display of homelessness was not going to be simply swept out of sight.
Working with city councillor Jack Layton, the TDRC and Tent City representatives came up with a model for a new managed community and started negotiating with the City of Toronto to provide one of its empty lots of land as a location. The Home Depot site would be evacuated as the residents were relocated to the new managed and sanctioned city site. Home Depot was willing to co-operate and forestall the evictions while a new solution was worked out.
Unfortunately, what was expected to take months to solve hit several obstacles and dragged on for another two years. The Toronto Disaster Relief Committee continued to provide material assistance to Tent City as it swelled with newcomers.
Seeing no solution in sight, Home Depot finally evicted Tent City residents on September 24, 2002. Home Depot, in public statements, said that they were concerned about safety on the site and about the drug activity that was going on. As the owner, Home Depot could be liable for mishaps on the site.
By this time, Tent City included more than 120 residents living in 55 handmade houses and pre-fabs plus tents. Many of the dwellings had wood stoves. On the walls could be found family photos and keepsakes. Many people called Tent City home.