A local carpenter has fired back at the city of Toronto, for an injunction application that would prevent him from building wooden shelters for the homeless population — arguing the city’s legal costs against him could be better spent creating more housing opportunities.
“Toronto’s emergency shelters are too often at capacity. People tell me they have nowhere to go,” Khaleel Seivwright said in a video statement, arguing the city should drop its application and “focus its resources and efforts on what matters – getting people safely housed.”
The city's injunction filing on Feb. 12 came roughly five months after Seivwright says he started building the shelters — meant to be warmed with body heat in sub-zero temperatures.
Officials have pushed back against the structures, with the city writing a letter to Seivwright in November claiming that he was interfering with efforts to relocate people indoors, and demanding that he stop the project immediately. Seivwright said at the time that efforts would continue, but announced via GoFundMe on Feb. 11 that no new structures would be built.
Throughout COVID-19, encampments have become an ever-present sight in Toronto. Hundreds are still believed to be living outside, as health workers have described an increase in frostbite, and encampment fires have increased more than 250 per cent from 2019 to 2020.
City statistics show men’s emergency shelters in Toronto on the night of Feb. 21 were at 99.7 per cent capacity; women’s emergency shelters were at 99.1 per cent; mixed adult emergency sites at 87.4 per cent; and 24-hour respite sites across the city were at 98.9 per cent.
Fire officials have said materials commonly kept in camps represent an "imminent, immediate threat to life," as advocates have pushed for safer heat sources to cut down on risks.
In his statement, Seivwright said he handed out fire extinguishers with his shelters, and installed fire and carbon monoxide alarms. Fire chief Matthew Pegg has told the Star that fluctuations in outdoor temperature and humidity would render those detectors unreliable in camps.
Last week, the body of a man was discovered inside the charred remains of a wooden structure in a Corktown park — the first encampment fire death this winter. There has been no link made between Seivwright’s shelters and the site of the fatality, with acting fire chief Jim Jessop saying the question of the structure’s origin would likely form part of a now-ongoing probe.
Contacted by the Star by email on Monday, Seivwright directed questions back to his lawyers. The city, presented with Seivwright’s statement, directed the Star to its statement on the injunction filing last week — which cited “serious safety concerns with these structures.”
In his statement, Seivwright said the tiny structures were only intended as a temporary solution, to keep a vulnerable population alive through the winter. “I hope there will be a day that the tiny shelters are no longer needed,” he said. “But that day has not yet come.”
Victoria Gibson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star