As It Happens

As Toronto cracks down on tiny shelters, a woman who lived in one says it 'felt like a home'

A woman who spent several weeks living in one of Khaleel Seivwright's tiny shelters says the city is wrong to go after him. 

The city has filed application for an injunction to stop a local carpenter from building the structures

An insulated shelter in Toronto’s Alexandra Park is pictured on Feb. 12. The city has now filed an application for an injunction against the local carpenter who built this and similar structures. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

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A woman who spent several weeks living in one of Khaleel Seivwright's tiny shelters says the city is wrong to go after him. 

Seivwright, a Toronto carpenter, is currently fighting an application for an injunction by the city to stop him from building the small wooden structures that he creates for unhoused people to use free of charge. 

"The money the city is spending to attack me could be put into safe housing for those that need it," Seivwright said in a statement provided by his lawyers on Monday.

The city argues the shelters are unsafe, but Jennifer Jewell disagrees. She lived in one between Oct. 26 and Nov. 18, 2020, before moving to a hotel-turned-shelter. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Jennifer, what was it like to live in one of these tiny shelters?

It was amazing. I spent the first three months living in the park in a tent. And I have several conditions with chronic pain and fatigue, including osteoarthritis, and sleeping on the ground and being on the ground and having to climb in and out of my tent throughout the day made my pain a lot worse. My mobility was a lot worse. I was having to sit down for an hour just to walk the 20 or 30 metres to get to the public bathrooms.

In the shelter, I didn't have any of those problems. It was much more accessible for me to get in and out. It was warm and dry. There was one night where there was a blizzard outside and I was able to go to sleep with the window open.

Just describe what it's like inside.

There is a carbon monoxide and smoke detector. And it was enough room for a single full mattress, and then some of your belongings.

It felt like a home for me. I installed one of the Dollorama lights that you just pushed to turn on. So I was able to read in there at night, and go in in the daytime when I needed to recuperate physically and have some quiet and privacy.

And when I was in the shelter, I was not only sleeping through the night for the first time since being out there, but I didn't have to go to sleep, like, holding my cane and my medications, terrified that someone was going to steal them from me.

Jennifer Jewell says she felt safe and comfortable in Khaleel Seivwright's tiny shelter. (Submitted by Jennifer Jewell )

Now, this tiny shelter was provided by a man named Khaleel Seivwright, whom we have interviewed on the show. What did you think when you heard that Toronto, the city, is trying to stop him from putting up any more of these shelters?

I think it's terrible. They're not acknowledging that ... there are already people living outside that are living in tents or who don't have tents. And stopping him from doing what he is [doing] just puts people at a much higher risk for freezing to death.

The shelter system is often at or over capacity. And a lot of them are not wheelchair accessible. They don't have accessible facilities or showers or bathrooms. You don't have trained staff to meet people's physical needs.

And there are a lot of reasons why people choose not to go into the shelter system. Myself, I'm immuno-compromised. So even without COVID, it would be dangerous. And my doctor agreed that it was safer for me to be living outside in the park than it was to go into one of the congregate shelter settings.

Seivwright says money being spent by city on court fight should go towards 'safe housing' instead. (Angelina King/CBC)

I think you probably know that a man died in a fire in a wooden structure. It's not clear if it was one of Khaleel's, but it was a structure in a park. And that's raised a lot of concerns about the safety of these structures, right?

Yeah. That was really terrible.

I think that if Toronto Fire in the City of Toronto was truly concerned about fire safety, they would be distributing fire extinguishers to people with instructions on how to use them. And there are some organizations that have been calling for them to distribute fire blankets, and they're not doing so. And there's no reason why not, because these people are already there. And he's already said that it's not meant to be a permanent solution. It is a temporary solution until they are able to find adequate housing.

We should point out that the city launched this injunction against Khaleel Seivwright's tiny houses before that fire, right?

Yes they did.

But they still use the same arguments, that they say that they're not safe, and this is not a solution for people like yourself to be in something where the same thing could happen to the structure you were in.

The first night I was here [in the hotel shelter], I requested to do a medical intake with their doctor the next day. I had a couple of concerns, the second of which was because they put me on the 15th floor, that if there were fire in the building, I would be physically incapable of evacuating the building.

They chose to not take me seriously, to leave me where I was. And on Valentine's Day, there was a fire in the building and they left me behind in the evacuation.

The staff who came up to our floor to make sure that everyone was off the floor was not aware that I was up there, was not aware I was disabled, even though I had the walker and explained to him three different times that I was physically unable to go down 15 flights of stairs.

He said that he would notify the emergency crews or some of the staff and someone would come for me. I called downstairs and spoke to them four times about it, and nobody told them that I was here. And the only reason that the firefighters came up to my room [was] in response to a 911 call that I had to make.

I thought I was going to die. I was 10 storeys above the fire and there was so much like smoke up here that it hurt me to breathe. And, you know, I'm still waking up in the middle of the night dreaming that I did burn to death.

Good heavens. I know you're in a hotel shelter now. That's where you're living. Is this the same place?

Yes.

Are you still in jeopardy like that?

They moved me down to the third floor yesterday.

I can get down one flight and then the crews would have to carry me down the other two. But it's a lot more feasible than expecting that they can safely carry me down 15 flights of stairs with my walker.

Some people in Toronto might see these structures going up in their neighbourhood parks and consider them ugly and that they are unable to use the park. What do you say to that? 

To put the aesthetic of the shelter and have that be more important than people not freezing to death is pretty terrible.

I can only speak from experience, but I was in Dufferin Grove Park, and I was really surprised by the love and support and the kindness of the residents there. They were delivering us food. They donated blankets. You know, they donated tents. Like, we had the most amazing support there. And, you know, the park was large enough that we could be in our own little space and not interfere with anyone else's enjoyment of the park.

But is it a solution, putting up tiny houses in the park? What's the ultimate solution for  the homelessness you're facing?

Affordable, safe, permanent housing.

And so if Toronto wants to fix this problem, that's what they need to do?

Yes.


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC Toronto. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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