Kensington’s Encampments

The city and some neighbours won’t let encampment residents simply live. Now, an application for a pollinator garden threatens to lead to an eviction many people homes at an established encampment in Kensington Market.

St. Stephen encampment, Nov. 13, 2023. Photo: Megan Kinch.
By Megan Kinch

November 17, 2023

Keith is a construction labourer. He is currently living in a tent in Bellevue Park, in the centre of Kensington Market. A long, protracted break-up caused him to fall into debt and depression, and eventually lose his apartment. He makes a good wage, but it’s unstable, and because of bad credit, he can't rent a place even when he has money.  

Keith eventually set up a tent in the park, where he says he feels a sense of community. He started talking more again and having friends. It sucks to be homeless, but Keith is always busy helping someone find a sleeping bag, or fixing a tarp, or finding places for friends to sit off the cold ground.

This summer, people who had been sleeping rough in Bellvue Park eventually put up tarps and tents. This new Bellevue Park encampment is mostly people with long-term connections to the area. Most have jobs, and some are members of unions. Victims of rent scams, bad breakups, and bad faith evictions, they are people who make money and can pay rent, but can’t get places due to bad credit or not having first and last month’s rent on hand.

While there are almost daily visits from people with the city’s Streets to Homes division and other agencies like the Encampment office (see text box), homes have not been materializing.

One day, Keith told me he despairs of ever getting into any kind of social housing. But the next day he tells me he talked to a worker who said they might be able to find him something. Most residents of that encampment are on that roller coaster; housing always seems around the corner, but it never comes through.

In the Kensington area, during the early phase of the pandemic, there was a large encampment at Alexandra Park, which was violently cleared in summer 2021 along with the encampments at Trinity Bellwoods and Lamport Stadium parks.

An encampment in Sonya’s Parkette in the Market and an encampment in Bellevue Park were later cleared more slowly and quietly, tent-by-tent, by the city.

Eventually, a stable encampment emerged in the churchyard of St Stephen’s in the field, at the corner of College St and Bellevue Ave. It has now been going for several years with support from the church and other groups.

Pirate, so-called for his eyepatch, decided to lean into the name, and lives in the St Stephen's churchyard encampment. He is a familiar face at pedestrian Sundays and other events, selling costume jewelry and other small items for money or barter, and is one of the most prominent information vendors. He has been living homeless in Toronto for three years, with two of those in the churchyard encampment.

He needs to be there for his business, plus it’s clear he finds meaning in creating community. He says the encampment “is like the Three Little Pigs. Tents are like a house of straw. I’m trying to build a house of sticks”. It’s his goal to winterize the encampment with pallets and raise up the tents off the ground so they stay dry and warmer.

One day, city workers showed up and started to throw out people’s things, he says, including the fire extinguishers that he had procured for the camp. “Why would you do that to fire extinguishers?” he asks. He wants to install fire detectors in the tent cluster as well. He says the city should be helping him instead of putting up barriers and disrupting the encampment. “They should be helping me to set it up. I need a drill. I need a staple gun. The list goes on. I need help with the pallets. It’s going to happen anyway.”

Pirate says that the relationship with the church, St Stephen-in-the-Fields, has been good, and that they keep communication open. He says he wants to make the encampment look like a little village, and pull back from the edge of the street, which is more visible.

Maggie Helwig, the minister at the Anglican Church, has become a kind of de-facto social worker and an advocate fighting for encampment. She says, "the city has been negatively disposed towards encampments in general. The only difference with our encampment in the churchyard is that they are directly connected to an institution which is advocating for them.”

The church has been using the space as a churchyard since 1864. The land however, like the rest of the front yards on both sides of Bellevue, is formally designated as a city of Toronto transportation right of way, dating from the days when Bellevue was a grand boulevard.

“Specific threats to clear the encampment go back to November 2022” says Helwig. “So we’ve been spending the last year with constant threats, which are prevented, revised, [and] modified over and over. It’s exhausting for us. It’s exhausting for the encampment residents.”

Previously, the area’s city councillor, Diane Saxe, told the Globe and Mail she wanted to displace the encampment to build a homeless memoria. A proposal which was widely criticized.

The newest threat comes from a brand-new organization called Friends of Bellevue Parkette.

Publicly available city documents show that the group was registered in August and is proposing a pollinator garden, which would require evicting the encampment in order to be installed. The group was incorporated under the directorship of one person, Elizabeth Girven, who is the director of Westside Montessori School, located just down the street. Friends of Bellevue Parkette’s incorporation documents show no website, no criteria for membership, and no publicized way to join.

There is, actually, no “Bellevue Parkette.” It’s a made-up name for the churchyard, currently used as an encampment, designated for transportation.

As of press time, the church and encampment residents have a case before the courts to get an injunction to block the pollinator garden application from leading to an eviction of the encampment.

[UPDATE Nov. 20, 2023: Today, Maggie Helwig of St Stephen-in-the-Fields posted on Twitter (X) that “the court has rejected our application for an injunction which would have protected our encampment from eviction,” and says more updates will be coming.]

Evicting an encampment the size of the one at St. Stephen’s is not something the city has done since summer 2021. The city did, however, temporarily evict part of the St. Stephen’s encampment using outreach workers and a bulldozer in December 2022 as freezing rain came down. The city had notified the church and residents a week earlier that arborists would be coming to remove two trees, but the aborist was able to save one.

Dominique Russell is the founder of Friends of Kensington Market and the co-chair of the Kensington Market Community Land Trust. She raised two children who went to the nearby public school in Kensington, a stone’s throw from the St. Stephen's encampment.

“There’s children walking by all the time,” she says. "West Neighbourhood House has a daycare right beside the Montessori school. It’s only this private school that has this problem. And why is that?”

Russel points out that the Montessori school is leasing a building owned by the city of Toronto. The building was formerly used as a shelter for abused women and children.

"Is a private school the best use of public, City of Toronto land in this neighborhood?" Russel asks.

TEXT BOX: City Shifts Encampments Management to New Office

Encampment management during the early pandemic was handled by the city’s Office of Emergency Management (now Toronto Emergency Management). But after a 2022 review, responsibility for encampments is now with the new Encampment Office, which is headed by John Francisco and which is located in the Shelter, Support & Housing Administration (SSHA). The Administration, it seems, is now ultimately responsible for managing encampment clearings, if they are conducted.

This article appears in the Nov/Dec 2023 issue.