Cleared by the city last week, camp beneath the Gardiner is back

Despite the city's effort to clear the encampment beneath the highway just last week, people are already returning to the 'community' they've forged.
The highway structure provides shelter from the elements. (CBC)

There are few places in the city that better illustrate Toronto's continuing problem with homelessness than the encampment beneath the Gardiner Expressway, where many homeless and transient people find refuge year-round.

Late last week, representatives from multiple city departments — including those on the frontline in the fight against homelessness — cleared the camp. The shanty structures were dismantled and the people living there offered help in finding a shelter.

Only two days later, however, a new camp is popping up.

According to many of the people living there, the camp is "a community" that offers more comfort than the city's shelter and transitional housing programs, and the highway overhead ensures the camp stays dry and protected from the elements.

"It's the one place I feel safe enough to sleep. I can go to bed alone and have very little very fear of waking up to being attacked or being robbed, both of which have happened sleeping elsewhere on the streets," said Christi Parks, who has been homeless or in shelters for about six years. 

Christi Parks said she stays away from shelters because of past experiences, including being battered and robbed. (CBC)

She told CBC Toronto that while the staff at shelters try their best, the atmosphere is often tense and unpredictable.

"Shelters make me feel very uncomfortable, at best," she said. "At worst, you have rampant drug use and people attacking each other."

Parks lives with mental illness and substance abuse, but is confident there may be an outreach program that's right for her. "I just haven't found it yet," she said. 

There are currently about 5,000 homeless and transient people in the city. The fact that camps like the one beneath the Gardiner continue to exist is a symptom of the city's failure to adequately deal with homelessness, said Ward 20 Coun. Joe Cressy.

A team consisting of multiple city departments cleared the camp and offered those living there social and health services, the city said. (CBC)

The camp falls in his ward, and Cressy acknowledged that before it was cleared last week, it had grown to its largest size in recent memory. 

"I hadn't seen it with this many people there in the past, but this is not unusual in downtown Toronto. Whether it's at Bathurst and Lakeshore, or under the Gardiner at Spadina, we have a large homeless population," he told CBC Toronto. 

"There's no one solution, unfortunately," he said, adding that getting people into shelters is only part of the process, as many need access to health services as well. 

"It ultimately comes down to getting a roof over your head though."

People are already returning because the camp is a 'community,' Parks said. (CBC)

When the camp was cleared Friday, a "social service response" by outreach teams tried to help about 12 people who were there at the time, according to Patricia Anderson, of Toronto's Homelessness Services.

While the camp beneath the Gardiner gets a lot of attention, Anderson said there were about 160 camp clearances last year in Toronto.

While it's still too early to tell what will become of the new encampment, Anderson said the city will continue to do what it can to find the homeless permanent housing.