Homeless camp under Gardiner soldiers on through rain, floods, police tickets

People living in a growing homeless camp underneath the Gardiner Expressway say they prefer the freedom of life on the streets to the city's shelters.

Tents, tarps and furniture have been a frequent sight under the Gardiner at the base of Spadina Avenue

People at the camp say they're ticketed by police and forced to leave about once a month. (Grant Linton/CBC News)

Despite threats of flooding, rain and police, people living in a growing homeless camp underneath the Gardiner Expressway say they're better off outdoors than inside a shelter.

A small community of people living in tents and under tarps recently sprang up again at the base of Spadina Avenue, just a few months after police cleared it away..

"If you're in a shelter you're dealing with other people, you're dealing with mental health issues, you're dealing with staff, said Derek, who did not give his last name to CBC Toronto. He said and other people in the camp worry about safety and the security of their possessions in shelters.

"Here I get up and do my thing and I don't bother anybody," he said.

"Some people come and go, some people pass through and some people live here," Derek explained.

The camp often gets flooded, he said, and offers little protection from the elements.

Every month or so, Derek says, Toronto police stop by to issue tickets and shut down the camp, an experience that can vary depending on the officer. 

Derek, who lives in the camp, says he feels unsafe in the city's shelters (Grant Linton/CBC News)

"It's definitely on a cop-by-cop basis," Derek said. "Some cops ... aren't nice, some cops are really sympathetic and some cops just want to come down and make sure everybody's okay."

Still, the homeless people are forced to leave, though it's usually not for long.

"We pack up and come back; we've got nowhere else to go," he said.

Streets to Homes

While the Gardiner gets a lot of attention, it's just one of about 160 camp clearances last year in Toronto, according to Patricia Anderson, of Toronto's Homelessness Services.

Earlier this year, the city cleared the camps beneath the Gardiner, dismantling the shanty structures and offering to help place those displaced to find a shelter. At the time, CBC Toronto reported, the city was home to some 5,000 homeless and transient people.

But the persistence of the camps is a sign the city needs to do more, says Coun. Joe Cressy.

Cressy says the city is trying to help homeless people bypass the shelter system and move straight into permanent housing through a program called Streets to Homes.

"Our effort through that program is to establish contacts with people who are living on the streets to find out what type of housing they need, what type of support services they need," Cressy said.

The program does not assist people staying in shelters because they already have access to housing workers, the city says.

People in the camp say it often floods during rainy weather. (Grant Linton/CBC News)

Building trust

Michael Hamilton, shelter manager at the Scott Mission, says it isn't realistic to expect every homeless person to stay in a shelter.

"There's a group of people that just like to be outside, to be in nature," he said, adding that those numbers are higher in milder weather.

Staff at the Scott Mission do not discourage people from staying outdoors, but instead work to build relationships with people who may one day turn to the organization's services, which include housing assistance and referrals to doctors.

"Once that trust is built we can be more a part of their lives," Hamilton said.

Still, none of that is enough to convince Derek to seek help at a Toronto homeless shelter. He says the Gardiner homeless camp is his only option.

 "If I had somewhere else to go I wouldn't be down here. If I had an apartment I wouldn't be sleeping under a bridge."

With files from Greg Ross