The small wooden structure inside Khaleel Seivwright’s rented Cabbagetown workshop looks something like an oversized shoebox, or perhaps a transport crate for a motorcycle.
A closer look reveals something more substantial.
Its walls are lined with a thick layer of fibreglass insulation normally used in residential construction. There is a door, a small casement window and spinning caster wheels at each corner of the base.
The whole thing costs about $1,000 in new material and takes Seivwright eight hours to construct, though he’s been happily giving them away for free since he started building them last month.
“It just seemed like something I could do that would be useful because there’s so many people staying in tents,” said Seivwright, 28, a carpenter from Scarborough.
“I’ve never seen so many people staying outside in parks, and this is something I could do to make sure people staying outside in the winter could survive.”
Seivwright started building the mobile shelters during his spare time in late September, in response to what has been described as a worsening homelessness crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Experts anticipate more people will be living outdoors this winter, in part due to concerns about the spread of the disease in Toronto’s strained shelter system.
Seivwright sees the shelters as a safe, temporary alternative for people who would otherwise be sleeping in tents or under tarps and blankets. He’s so far dropped off two of the shelters in out-of-the-way locations around Toronto.
“This isn’t a permanent solution. This is just making sure people don’t die in the cold this winter,” Seivwright said. “At least some people.”
He said the shelters will be able to keep people comfortably warm with their own body heat in temperatures as low as -20 C.
Seivwright is paying for the project largely through an online fundraising campaign, where he has so far collected about $2,500.
Advocates warn of ‘catastrophic’ winter
Cathy Crowe, a long-time street nurse, said the city vastly underestimates the number of people who sleep outdoors, and she expects that figure to be higher than ever this winter as more people run out of COVID-19 emergency benefits and lose their homes.
“It’s going to be catastrophic. We have not yet seen the wave of evictions from people in unstable, unaffordable housing,” she told CBC Toronto. “People are trickling into homelessness now, but it’s going to be like nothing we’ve ever seen in our lifetime.”
Advocates for the homeless have been calling on the City of Toronto to dramatically increase the capacity of its shelter system since the early days of the pandemic.
The city offers close to 6,800 shelter beds, and there are plans to open 560 additional spaces during the winter.
“Currently, the system is very busy and very full,” said Gord Tanner, director of homelessness initiatives and prevention at the city’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration.
With the system already at or near capacity, Crowe said the planned expansion will not meet the demand for shelter spaces this winter, which could make mobile shelters a useful temporary measure.
While she normally prefers projects that address root causes of homelessness, such as a lack of affordable housing, Crowe said the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic have changed her way of thinking, at least for this winter.
“I don’t like this idea of coffin-like structures as a solution — I really, really don’t — but we’re not being given an alternative,” Crowe said. “Innovative, creative solutions like this are going to have to happen.”
Getting people indoors is top priority, city says
The city says it will continue to focus on its street outreach work this winter and encourage as many people as possible to use indoor shelter spaces.
“We’re very committed as we head into fall and winter and colder weather, to provide pathways for those individuals to come indoors to safe spaces,” Tanner said.
He did not say if the city would take a more lenient approach to mobile shelters or other encampments this winter, though he noted that mobile shelters can pose “significant” risks to occupants, including as potential fire hazards.
Seivwright said the threat of bylaw enforcement won’t deter him from building and distributing the shelters.
“This is what I know how to do, this is what seems to be viable, so I’m going to continue to do this.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.