Life is more in tents these days

Toronto catches up with the rest of the world (in a bad way)

I got to visit Seattle last May and it was glorious. I hadn’t been to the Pacific Northwest since I was ten, so it was a gorgeous novelty to me - the coffee, the trees, the vibes, the ubiquity of only mildly pretentious vegetarian food. What shocked me was the homelessness. Yes, I know, it’s a naive privilege to be shocked. But shocked I was. Homelessness was pervasive there in a way I had not seen in Canada.

Of course homelessness is a huge problem here: our shelters are often at capacity, our system is patchwork at best, we are moving much too slowly. Yet when you don’t see homelessness daily, you don’t think about it daily.

Right now a wave of increased homelessness is rendering the invisible highly visible here in Toronto. There are tent cities all over our city. I note them growing as I slow jog through Toronto on my runs. Three tents one week turns into a dozen the next. Two new encampments appeared between last week and this one. It all reminds me of the climate window. Once again, we are ALIVE NOW at a moment when a problem is going from deeply wicked to unfathomably wicked. I am witness to the normalization of rampant homelessness in my city. If I wondered how people could sidestep homeless people sleeping on every square of sidewalk in Seattle, now is the moment where we are seeing this normalization come to Toronto.

Homelessness is escalating because we are failing to challenge the seismic shifts in income inequality, build affordable housing, and address the social determinants of health and lack of social supports that render people homeless in the first place. COVID is merely an exacerbator and a visualizer. 

The visual metaphors have piled up here in Toronto over the past few years - people dining in vulgar plastic pods while tent cities are raised, people doing yoga in vulgar plastic pods while tent cities spring up all over the city. It’s always been here, but until you see it with your own eyes, it’s hard to believe. I still think of the Toronto that I moved to almost twenty years ago. I forget that the city is now a monstrously expensive place where a coffee and croissant combo costs $8. I feel like an extra in my own city as I run by a class of beautiful women exercising in Trinity Bellwoods Park, a sea of tents behind them. 

I feel like we’re on the edge of a precipitous reckoning. The choices we make, not just on climate, but on everything, will determine the fate of our human experiment. We know so much about how to mitigate the pain and suffering. And yet we’re moving too slowly. 

Listening to one of my favourite humans, Dr. Kwame McKenzie, speak beautifully on Piya Chattopadhyay’s new CBC show, the parallels to our existential climate threats are too obvious to ignore. “Poverty is expensive,” he said. Just as with climate, the cost of solving problems now is much cheaper than it will be in the future. The longer we wait, the more expensive that croissant becomes. Eventually, there won’t be enough money in the world to pay for it, forget about the turmeric latté.

The economic term for all this is discounting. We’re discounting everything, present-biasing our way to a future that will be bleaker for everyone. 

I’m bullish on Toronto. People who threaten to move away or talk shit about it annoy the hell out of me. Leave already, I think, when people complain about Toronto. But I don’t want people to leave. I want them to stay, to help, to make the city better, to keep the spirit alive. Railing against gentrification is like spitting against the wind. Flippers are gonna flip, boring monied types will buy the artsy apartments we used to live in and turn them into single homes, BlogTO will write clickbaity pieces about the closing of Sneaky Dee’s. But charcoal ice cream is also...pretty damn good. And there’s a way for us to make it work. To find the money to make this city liveable for everyone. To be decent. To be kind. To build good quality housing for all the people that need it. To be Toronto the good. But, like, good in the Raptors BLM way, and not the puritanical, self-righteous, boring way.

I can't get the yoga class tent scene out of mind. I appreciate that it’s not adversarial, that people are sharing the park. But also, how did all of this become normal in just a few weeks?

The city’s (Shelter, Support and Housing Administration) report goes to the planning and housing committee on September 22nd. Let the City know you support increased leasing buildings for housing. Let the Mayor know your thoughts. With all the other worries in the world, this issue just doesn’t seem to be finding traction. Let’s change that.

I really like this quote from MP Adam Vaughan:

A homeless person is just a neighbour without a house. When you house them, they turn into neighbours.