Toronto housing advocate faces legal threats over shelters

by | Dec 4, 2020 | City News, Headlines, News

Khaleel Seivwright, the creator of tiny shelters placed throughout homeless encampments across the city, just might qualify as this era’s Good Samaritan.

From Monday to Sunday, the 28-year-old housing advocate can be found building shelters to provide temporary housing for those in need. Each shelter costs about $1,000 and takes Seivwright eight hours to construct. He is supported by a GoFundMe campaign which has raised more than $150,000 over two months.

But not everyone is impressed.

Seivwright has received numerous threats of legal action from the City of Toronto and has been asked to remove all his building material or face a fine.

“They’re bylaws and not criminal offences, so I am not fearful of going to jail,” he said. “It’s been frustrating, but I am hoping the city realizes that this could be part of a solution for people staying inside this pandemic.”

Initially, the city said the wooden structures weren’t considered safe because they lacked fire alarms and hadn’t been inspected. Seivwright says each structure is equipped with a fire alarm and a carbon monoxide alarm, and the city clarified they were still potentially unsafe because Toronto Fire Services haven’t inspected them.

Seivwright received numerous letters from Janie Romoff, general manager of the city’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division, urging him to stop.

“The City of Toronto, therefore, demands that you immediately cease the production, distribution, supply and installation of such shelters for placement and use on city property,” she wrote in one letter. “Should you fail to do so, the city may, among other remedies, hold you responsible for the costs of removal of such structures.”

The idea came to him during a three-year volunteer trip to northern British Columbia, where Seivwright built himself a two-by-four-foot shelter with six windows that he slept in temperatures as cold as -15 C.

When he returned to Toronto, he couldn’t believe how many people were sleeping outside and he became motivated to do something about it.

“I was shocked by how many people were sleeping outside in tents in a city like Toronto,” he said. “I figured that this was something I could do to help people survive this winter.

“Every time we deliver a shelter to someone, I hope that if this person isn’t getting housing, that at least they have this,” he said.

Seivwright, a Scarborough native, sees the shelters as a safe, temporary alternative for people who would otherwise be sleeping in tents or under tarps and blankets.

He started working on construction sites with his father at age 11. In his teens, he pursued carpentry, which he has been doing for the past eight years.

One shelter takes 12 hours to make. While he’s working, his girlfriend and dog stop by to check on him and bring food. Seivwright’s friends stop by periodically throughout the week to help him load each shelter on a trailer to get downtown.

The “Toronto Tiny Shelters” are insulated like residential homes, have a small window and a door, and are designed with insulation, plywood, and wrapped in Tyvek. Each shelter’s walls are lined with a thick layer of fibreglass insulation generally used in residential construction. There are a door, a small window and spinning wheels at each corner of the base, making it easy to push to new destinations.

Seivwright says his shelters are not a permanent solution.

“There is a problem with the temporary housing and the hotels the city has for homeless people right now. Bylaw officers try to gather people from the tents to bring to their hotels,” Seivwright said.

“They feel trapped and can’t leave whenever they feel like it,” he said. “There are restrictions on everything that they do.”

He said the long-term solution is providing affordable housing for people.

“So far, I’ve been getting a positive response from those living in encampments. Some even decorate their homes and paint them,” he said. “It makes me happy to hear all the success stories.

“They feel safe and warm, which means I did my job,” he said.

Housing advocate Cathy Crowe says Seivwright is a “hero,” and she was upset to hear he received threatening letters from the city. At first, Crowe was firmly against the tiny shelters because she feared they might not be safe for specific individuals but quickly changed her mind after hearing the many success stories from residents.

“I really feel the city is failing drastically and that this is a life-saving measure,” Crowe said.