‘Staying home’ in public

May 25, 2020 by Loren March

This past weekend, it finally happened. Following increasing calls on the part of many of Toronto’s urbanists and public space advocates for a dramatic expansion of access of urban public space, the City finally opened up streets around the downtown for socially distanced outdoor leisure activities with its new Quiet Streets Initiative. This was much to the jubilation of downtown residents, many of whom eagerly took the opportunity to take over streets like Lakeshore Drive, previously deemed the exclusive domain of automobiles. The street was filled with the carefully dispersed bodies of cyclists and pedestrians, joyfully taking up space for some long weekend fun.

Yet this exceptional access is, unsurprisingly perhaps, not being extended to everyone. Not two days earlier, under the nearby Gardiner Expressway between Spadina and Rees St., which runs parallel to Lakeshore, outreach workers, activists and inhabitants found themselves in a tense standoff with Toronto police and representatives from the City who had come with vehicles and machinery to dismantle an encampment that had been erected during the pandemic. This clearing of homes and displacement of people was a part of a broader initiative that the City of Toronto has been recently undertaking to remove numerous encampments that have assembled throughout the city. Similar initiatives have been observed in other Canadian cities, such as Victoria and Vancouver

The co-existence – and perhaps even congruence? – of these events demands that we rethink not just housing, but public-private binaries in so-called COVID-19 times and beyond. While extraordinary spaces are being opened up and rendered ‘public’ and accessible to certain privileged groups of people for a very particular array of permitted leisure activities, simultaneously the practices and bodies of people experiencing homelessness are being strategically targeted, policed and removed from other ordinarily public spaces. At a time when ‘staying home’ has been deemed a primary point of defense against the spread of disease, what happens when ‘home’ implies public space? What happens when home does not fit into the legitimized idea of what constitutes a home? 

What is a home, exactly, anyway? If ‘staying home’ has been deemed a primary point of defense against the spread of COVID-19, what does that mean? Thinking through the work of geographer Sarah Dooling (2009), who, in her work on urban justice, coined the term ‘ecological gentrification’ to refer to the process by which the production of urban green spaces serves to erase and displace people experiencing homelessness, we can see how the privileged spatial access of some people relies upon the dispossession of others. Yet Dooling also offers us other important insights. For her, homelessness is not just a problem related to affordable housing, it is also a political problem tied to our ideological constructions of housing, home and public space, and to the ways policymakers, housing providers and law enforcement exercise their power in relation to these. This means that the very way we think and talk about something like ‘home’ can in effect create certain vulnerabilities and perpetuate injustices in the lives of people experiencing homelessness. Dooling insists that normative ideas that constitute a legitimate ‘home’ as something that cannot possibly exist in public space inform practices like the clearing of encampments that we are seeing in Toronto. If ‘home’ is understood an inherently ‘private’ space, and public and private space are understood in terms of binary opposition, then ‘home’ cannot exist in public space. It does not matter if you inhabit a doorway, or you set up a tent in a ravine, and you are forced to engage in what are usually understood as ‘private’ acts in ‘public’ spaces. This binary categorization of public and private makes thinking of supposedly ‘public’ spaces as ‘home’ impossible, and in effect produces a kind of easy displaceability in regards to the people who might dwell in such circumstances. It produces a kind of right to nowhere, and in turn justifies the practice of placing people anywhere, regardless of their personal preference or ideas about what a safe home might be for them.

Without attempting to romanticize lived experiences of homelessness, Dooling’s work underlines that, for some people, life in an encampment can offer a better sense of home and safety than a shelter can. She underlines that the decision to camp outdoors is ‘not an absolute preference; rather it is a choice made relative to the viability of all other options’ (2009, 627, italics mine). The possibility that an encampment might be preferable or safer for people than the shelter system, however, is largely left out of the City of Toronto’s depiction of encampments, which has mostly focused on a perceived lack of social distancing and hygiene, and a potential danger posed by fires. The possibility of considering groups who are camped together as ‘family bubbles’ is also foreclosed by the limited understandings of ‘household group’ implied in the province’s current policies around interpersonal contact and gatherings. Yet there remains the possibility that camp life might provide more space and privacy than the shelter system. Camp communities might also offer a sense of belonging and a source of mutual care and support in a time of crisis. And finally, many of the individuals interviewed in recent media stories, have noted that they have chosen to live in encampments because the shelter system poses a dangerous alternative.

As of May 22, the City of Toronto’s data on active cases of COVID-19 in the city’s shelters shows 311 active cases. The City’s data shows one confirmed death in the shelter system, although two have been publicly reported in the media. Five of the Toronto’s shelters are currently experiencing outbreaks of the virus. According to advocates and people who use the shelters, social distancing is impossible in the shelter spaces. Homelessness activists and outreach workers recently filed a lawsuit against the City for violating the rights of shelter residents and placing their lives in danger, which has since been settled. Many of the people who have resorted to living in encampments throughout the city’s parks, ravines and in-between spaces have done so because the alternative they face is both frightening and potentially life-threatening.

The City has expressed a growing concern for those living in such encampments, particularly after a man lost his life in a fire in the Rosedale valley ravine on May 1st. Just prior to this tragedy, on April 29th, while announcing new programming around homelessness, Mayor John Tory also stated a concern about the risks of COVID-19 spreading in these spaces where he suggested there is often no physical distancing. The City of Toronto’s general manager of shelter, support and housing administration, Mary-Ann Bedard, has argued that those living in encampments have been offered alternative accommodations. She has stated that representatives at the City ‘have made a commitment not to clear a site without offering everyone a placement,’ but that they are ‘not always able to offer everyone a placement of their choice.’ While the City has been actively setting up arrangements for people to be housed in condos, apartment buildings and hotels at 27 different sites, and also plans to build 250 units of supportive modular housing, the option many continue to be offered is to move into the shelter system.

Concerns for safety are valid, and ultimately long-term, secure housing needs to be provided to anyone inhabiting encampments who might want it. Toronto, after all, had a homelessness crisis long before COVID-19 appeared, with our shelters at capacity, and the housing crisis has only served to put more people at risk. The current situation should be taken as an opportunity to think through some long-term, sustainable options for safe and supportive housing, and to address our overburdened shelter system. In the meantime there must be a respect for people’s wellbeing. The practice of forcefully removing encampments enacts violence, further disrupts lives and relationships in an already traumatic time of crisis, and disregards the possibility of people experiencing homelessness having any sense of what is good for them. As some recent research has found, the clearing of makeshift homes simply pushes people into more hidden locations, putting their safety more at risk (Westbrook and Robinson, 2020). Surely other courses of action are possible. Safety measures could be developed. Fire safety plans and social distancing plans could be discussed and implemented. Handwashing stations could be provided. Having seen first-hand with what speed the City managed to provide portable handwashing stations to community gardens across downtown neighbourhoods when the province declared them an ‘essential service,’ it seems completely viable for such emergency provisions to be made available for encampments that are the subject of serious public health concerns.

While exceptional spaces are produced on the behalf of more privileged publics, people experiencing homelessness are understood to be engaging in inappropriate behaviours in already existing public spaces. Of course, at their core, these kinds of exclusionary practices are far from new or extraordinary. In the months leading up to the shutdown, for example, police were already evicting and displacing people from encampments built in the Rosedale Valley. Yet in the wake of COVID-19, we need to reconsider the presence of homelessness in our city. It cannot be swept out of sight. And as behaviour in purportedly public spaces like sidewalks and parks is increasingly policed (and not just by the police themselves), and new forms of public space emerge and are socially produced, it seems necessary to reconsider the notion of publicness, and how homelessness fits into that. Does the public include those who are experiencing homelessness? And if so, how are the public spaces being produced going to include such people?

Loren March is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, Department of Geography and Planning