Churches hosting encampments report multiple challenges

Priest-in-charge Canon Maggie Helwig stands in front of fencing and cement blocks placed in front of St. Stephen-in-the- Fields by city crews to prevent tents from being set up there. Photo: Matthew Puddister
Published March 1, 2024

Cities forcibly clear tents as housing crisis spurs rising homelessness

Second part of Welcoming the Stranger, a two-part series.

Churches that have tried to welcome homeless people by allowing them to sleep on their property say they have faced diverse challenges, and as the housing crisis continues with no end in sight, some are calling for deeper structural changes.

Encampments on church properties have proliferated in recent years amid an explosion of homelessness and soaring housing prices. Multiple Anglican parishes across Canada have seen large numbers of people set up tents on their properties.

One such parish is the Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, located in downtown Toronto’s Kensington Market. Until recently, as many as 25 people at a time camped out in tents on the tiny strip around the church, which priest-in-charge Canon Maggie Helwig says has long been known as a welcoming and safe space for unhoused people.

“There has never been a time in the last 30 or 40 years, if not longer, that there haven’t been a few people sleeping in the churchyard,” Helwig says. For just under two years, the latest encampment marked the entrance to St. Stephen-in-the-Fields.

That changed on Nov. 24 when the city of Toronto forcibly cleared the encampment, setting up fences and concrete blocks to prevent anyone from camping there. A city notice said the land was a transportation right of way and municipal property and that tents were blocking the street.

A handful of people could still be found camping outside the church entrance when the Anglican Journal visited St. Stephen-in-the-Fields in mid-December. Helwig called the city’s clearing of the encampment “regrettable”. People camping on church property are not the issue, in Helwig’s view.

“Our church yard has been for over a century a sanctuary, a safe space,” Helwig says. “To see it surrounded by an eight-foot security fence and blocked off by concrete blocks is incredibly painful. It is such a wound on the identity of this parish.”

Struggle to survive

A 2023 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) found there is no province in Canada where workers who earn the minimum wage can afford an apartment.

In almost every Canadian city, the one-bedroom rental wage—the hourly wage that would allow a tenant in a single-earner household to spend no more than 30 per cent of their pre-tax earnings on rent—is higher than the minimum wage. The CCPA named Toronto and Vancouver as the worst culprits. In these cities, even two full-time workers earning minimum wage cannot afford a one-bedroom unit without spending more than 30 per cent of their combined income on housing.

Homeless encampment outside Sanctuary church in Toronto in June 2020. Photo: Greg Cook

Churches’ experiences with encampments can vary. Helwig describes a good relationship between St. Stephen-in-the-Fields and people sleeping on church property. She opposed the city’s clearing of the encampment.

The hundreds of people who have slept outside St. Stephen-in-the-Fields have come from many different backgrounds, Helwig says. She recalls one older woman with cancer whose housing unit was taken over by a gang and who needed somewhere to stay while Toronto Community Housing worked to re-house her. The woman ended up living at the encampment for about six months.

“She was lovely,” Helwig says. “She was great to have around. But she should have been indoors.”

Helwig acknowledges many people who have slept outside St. Stephen-in-the-Fields have mental health problems. She says society tends to stigmatize and stereotype such people.

“Mental health issues are extremely common at all levels of society,” Helwig says. “It’s not unique to people who are homeless. But the stress of being homeless can exacerbate struggles people are already having.”

People camping on church property “have the same frustrations and arguments as any group of people trying to find ways to live together,” she says. “Sometimes I will go out and yell at people about throwing their garbage on the ground rather than putting it in bins and we negotiate and we work things through. Nobody’s perfect. We’re all human beings struggling and trying to survive. But these are people who are trying to survive in tremendous affliction and against great odds in a society that has very little time for them.”

Tensions with parishioners

Other churches that have hosted encampments say they have faced challenges of a different sort. The relationship of the Anglican Church of St. John the Evangelist in Peterborough, Ont. with people camping on its property changed over time, to the point where it decided it had to ask them to leave.

Canon Brad Smith, rector at St. John the Evangelist, recalls a crisis in the summer of 2019 when one of the city’s emergency shelters closed, leaving many unhoused people with nowhere to go. Soon an encampment sprang up on church property, which at its peak saw around 35 tents set up on the front lawn, Smith says.

That concentration of people living in tents on church grounds lasted roughly six months, he says, with some eventually finding more stable housing and others finding space in the shelter system. Still others, Smith says, continued to live on the property.

However, there was some tension between campers and parishioners— tension that came to a head in March 2022 after a wave of vandalism, Smith says, and other criminal activity. The church informed tenters it hoped they would vacate by the end of the month.

“Some of the folks that were living in tents were dealing drugs and just engaging in behaviour that was drawing a lot of people to the property that were making parishioners feel unsafe,” Smith says. “We had some really significant property damage that happened as a result of some of the folks who were here.

“It got to the point where we were not really providing a place for people who don’t have options for housing. We’re kind of tolerating really antisocial behaviour. Because we’re right downtown and have a lot of both residential and commercial neighbours, at that point in time, the folks who were here in tents, it was time for them to move on.”

An unhoused person’s temporary box home set up at the entrance of St. James Anglican Church in Vancouver. Photo: Ted McGrath/Flickr

St. George’s Anglican Church in Moncton, N.B. allowed about 20 people to temporarily camp next to its sanctuary for a week in 2020. Canon Chris VanBuskirk told the Canadian Press at the time that he and other parishoners had initially considered asking the campers

to leave because of angry reactions from neighbours. Instead they made an agreement for a temporary stay.

Over the following week, VanBuskirk said, community members dropped off food and other items. The church also held a breakfast where it introduced the unhoused camping there to social services.

Looking back today, Esther Mah, who serves as administrator, treasurer and outreach coordinator at St. George’s and was present during the encampment, views the experience negatively.

“It was not a good experiment,” Mah says. “It was a disaster, in all honesty. We thought we would try it, be helpful. It really wasn’t a helpful thing because it just became a magnet for bad behaviour and it was unsightly. It created a lot of animosity in the downtown area … When they were asked to pack up, it took them almost a week longer to pack up than they should have.”

Balance of security

While some churches have hosted large encampments, others are more likely to host just one or two individuals sleeping on church property.

Such is the situation in Vancouver’s Westside, according to Joan Stewart, co-chair of the board of management for Westside Anglicans Neighbourhood Ministry, which conducts homeless outreach in the neighbourhood. Each week, Westside Anglican teams go out and assist unhoused people, giving them packages of goods, for example.

Those sleeping on church grounds “don’t hang around there during the day,” Stewart says. “They don’t set up an encampment. But they find a spot that is secluded on the property and they may stay overnight with their belongings. Then they usually disappear in the mornings.”

The Rev. David Butorac, rector of St. Alban’s Cathedral in Prince Albert, Sask., describes a similar situation at his own church. A semi-permanent structure for homeless people was set up by a friend of his on his church’s grounds last winter, but that was really an exception, Butorac says.

“We always have people camping out on our back stoop all the time,” he adds. “But that’s always different people and not anything remotely permanent.” Usually, he says, individuals will stay overnight on church property in sleeping bags and use cardboard boxes or tarps to try to keep out the elements.

While acknowledging some parishioners may have safety concerns, Butorac says the overwhelming majority of people sleeping on church property have not caused any problems.

“It’s a balance of security,” Butorac says. “I’m a 47-year-old male. I’m not afraid of a half-frozen homeless person. But a lot of my parishioners are 70 and they’re women. That’s scary to them and I definitely see their side for sure.”

A homeless man with his dogs on a street in Montreal. Photo: Ivy Photos/Shutterstock

More often it is unhoused people themselves who face threats to their safety. Butorac cites recurring problems in the community with gang members who target the homeless. A typical method of attack, he says, involves three people converging on an individual or couple sleeping under a tarp. One person on each side will step on the tarp to pin them down, while the other people kick them and steal their belongings.

“We don’t have visible encampments … [only] the occasional person sleeping in a doorway,” Butorac says. “But they’re not there for longer than two days because it’s also super dangerous.”

During the cold half of the year, St. Alban’s hosts a soup kitchen and a warming shelter in its hall that other churches help run. On an average day in this outreach ministry, Butorac says, the cathedral will serve about 50 people, most of whom are Indigenous.

Statistics Canada reported in December 2023 that 29.5 per cent of Indigenous households had experienced some kind of homelessness, almost three times the rate among Canada’s total population. Homes in Indigenous communities are often both expensive and poor in quality, lacking adequate insulation. Many First Nations also face problems with substance abuse and gang activity.

“Sometimes families will move off of the reserve because it’s so dangerous,” Butorac says. “I know young couples who are homeless who moved off reserve because their family were drug dealers and they didn’t want to get tangled up in it anymore.”

What is to be done?

Statistics Canada reported in December 2023 that financial problems were the most commonly reported reason leading to homelessness. Its report cited deteriorating housing affordability during the pandemic, higher unemployment, fewer job vacancies in recent months, and soaring inflation in 2021 and 2022. In fall 2022, StatsCan said, 44 per cent of Canadians said they were very concerned with their household’s ability to afford housing or rent. The high cost of housing parallels the proliferation of encampments and people sleeping outdoors, including on church grounds.

Churches that have hosted encampments or people sleeping on their property have drawn similar conclusions.

A statue of a beggar outside St. Stephen-in-the-Fields. Photo: Matthew Puddister

“There are people here now in Peterborough who two years ago … would’ve said, ‘I’m not at any risk of being unhoused,’ who are now unhoused, as a product of the fact that we have one of the lowest vacancy rates in the province and extremely high cost of housing for the amount of the median income in Peterborough County,” Smith says.

Greg Cook, an outreach worker at the non-denominational Sanctuary church in Toronto, says the city in the past told people sleeping in parks that they would receive tickets for trespassing if they didn’t move—but that if they cooperated with a city worker to find shelter or housing, they wouldn’t have to move right away.

Now, Cook says, “just because of the cost of housing going up so much and the shelter being more and more full, I would say that kind of approach is just more and more ineffectual. So you have a situation where more and more people just don’t have any other option” but to sleep on church property.

The city of Toronto has responded to churches hosting encampments on their property by taking them to court for violating bylaws—as happened to Sanctuary—and by forcibly clearing encampments and putting up obstacles such as fences and concrete blocks, as it did at Sanctuary and St. Stephen-in-the-Fields.

When clearing encampments, the city of Toronto has offered spaces at temporary shelters such as hotels. But the city has also been closing temporary shelters at hotels created during the start of the pandemic. Cook notes that at such institutions, “You don’t have any rights as a tenant. They can kick you out at any point and there’s no process. It’s not housing.”

Cook and Helwig say Canada needs more emergency shelter spaces in the short term and deeper structural changes to address the housing crisis in the long term.

“The solution to homelessness is homes that people can afford,” Cook says. “Homelessness happens when rent is out of people’s reach, and the situation just keeps getting catastrophically worse.” Even if large numbers of affordable homes began to be constructed each year, he says, it would take years to make up for the current deficit.

In the interim, Cook points to the need for emergency spaces and has suggested opening up local armouries, which are under federal government ownership.

“Ultimately it’s the federal government that has the deepest pockets and used to be the one who primarily funded a housing programme that made sure that people could afford housing … More and more, housing is [treated as] an investment rather than a social good,” he says.

A defaced sign marks fencing and cement blocks in front of St. Stephen-in-the- Fields. Photo: Matthew Puddister

Helwig says unhoused people need to be supported in the short term where they are, while institutions work towards long-term solutions.

“The city [of Toronto] has said they have a lot of concern about fire risk, but … they don’t distribute fire extinguishers. They don’t distribute fire retardant blankets. They don’t distribute hot water bottles … which are a much safer way of staying warm in cold weather. We would really encourage them to take a more pragmatic approach to fire safety and help people find ways to stay warm that are less dangerous.”

While long-term solutions aren’t likely to come quickly, Helwig says, current short-term measures like simply moving homeless people into shelter hotels “from which they’ll probably be evicted within a week” are not viable.

“We need much more emergency shelter space,” she says. “We need more flexible types of shelter space. We need more affordable and supportive housing. We need housing that actually meets people’s accessibility needs and meets people where they are, rather than rapidly evicting people for not fitting some perfect model of what a tenant in supportive housing is supposed to be.


  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister (aka Matt Gardner) is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He also supports General Synod's corporate communications.

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