Zacarías Camarra lives in a tent in one of the 14 encampments in Toronto’s downtown core. He’s among the homeless who remain unseen and seemingly uncared for by government.
He has been threatened and raided by Toronto bylaw officers numerous times, forcing him to move from encampment to encampment since March. He’s lived at Trinity-Bellwoods Park, in the Queen Street and Strachan Avenue area of west Toronto, for 57 days now, most likely facing another eviction with nowhere to go.
Toronto bylaws say no person shall live, camp or lodge in a park unless authorized by a permit. But advocates like the Encampment Support Network (ESN) asked for Toronto’s anti-camping bylaw to be halted during the pandemic.
Toronto City Council invested $10.6 million in 400 new beds in shelters to help the homeless, but advocates argue that what is being offered to people at facilities like the Better Living Centre is “not a better life.”
Camarra, among those whom shelters were provided for, agrees.
“I don’t feel safe in the shelter,” Camarra said. “My health is no good, and folks like me don’t survive viruses. The only place I feel safe right now is my tent. This is my home.”
Camarra said he makes sure his tent is near a street so people can keep an eye out for him in case something happens.
“If I go panhandle, I ask one of my friends to keep an eye on my tent,” he said. “My tent is raided at least twice a week. This is the only stuff I got, ya know. I don’t have the money to buy more stuff.
“I had a photo of my daughter they destroyed, ain’t never going to get that back,” Camarra said.
The Better Living Centre, located on the Exhibition grounds downtown, opened its doors on Nov. 7 with 100 new beds placed in an L-shaped plexiglass room. Some homeless people didn’t feel safe due to overcrowding and lack of privacy.
“Imagine offering a human being a cage-like place to sleep with eyes on you 24/7,” Cathy Crowe, a Toronto street nurse, said. “This kind of institutionalization only harms homeless people as they already lack privacy on the streets. They need privacy and their own room with a door.
“For someone to pick sleeping in a tent during frigid temperatures over living at a shelter, it speaks in high volumes,” she said.
Crowe has been a longtime advocate for better housing conditions for homeless people and believes all government levels need to come together to combat the housing crisis.
“There is so much emphasis on condominiums and homeownership, but none on functional housing programs to help those most vulnerable,” she said. “It is estimated that 130,000 Torontonians may be at risk of becoming homeless because of the economic crisis.”
Crowe said housing is too expensive and people are struggling to afford to live in Toronto.
“We need all levels of government to come together on this. This is a national crisis,” she said.
Programs like the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit were implemented by the federal government to support Canadians financially during the pandemic, but not everyone was able to benefit.
Mike Smith, 65, lost his home in March 2020 as the outbreak of COVID-19 led to him losing his job. With his wife’s sudden death and no savings to keep him afloat, Smith’s only option was to pitch his tent and join eight other people at his encampment.
“I applied for EI, CERB, and OW. You name it,” Smith said. “I didn’t qualify for nothing.
“When I lost my wife, I lost myself,” he said. “I come to this corner (Yorkville and Bay Streets) every day, hoping to get a warm meal. People are nice. They smile at me, which makes me very happy.
“The ones that don’t, I get it. We all have things we’re going through,” Smith said.
Smith hopes governments will soon provide affordable housing available to individuals like himself.
“I miss my balcony and hanging my plants up. I used to have fresh tomatoes and peppers all the time,” he said. “I miss just watching TV and eating a bag of chips. I hope one day, I can have a home again.”