At church encampments, unhoused share challenges of daily survival
First part of Welcoming the Stranger, a two-part series.
James Patrick Andrew Smith was 16 years old when she first came to Toronto.
Originally from Moosonee, Ont., Smith—who is a member of Moose Cree First Nation and identifies as two-spirited, an Indigenous term for gender-nonconforming people—grew up in foster care. She lived in Toronto for two years before she met her uncle at the 21 Park Road Respite Centre, a local homeless shelter.
Smith, now 24, says it was her uncle who introduced her to Sanctuary. A non-denominational church that supports poor and homeless residents in Toronto, Sanctuary provides meals, street outreach, a health clinic, an arts program and Sunday worship services. Her uncle, who was homeless and has since died of alcohol-related causes, had been a member of the Sanctuary community for about 25 years.
“He said, ‘Just come to Sanctuary whenever you don’t have a place to go,’’’ Smith recalls. “So it’s always been my go-to place. I feel safe here.”
“Homelessness isn’t fun right now,” she adds, speaking to the Anglican Journal on a cold December evening. “But having a community to be a part of is comforting. It made sleeping on church property feel like home.”
The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH), a national advocacy organization, estimates there are between 260,000 and 300,000 unhoused people across Canada. A study of 11 communities by CAEH found chronic homelessness in them increased by 40 per cent between February 2020 and October 2023.
Church grounds have become a common place of refuge. The Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, an Anglican church in downtown Toronto, in recent years often had more than 25 people at a time camped out on its property, priest-in-charge the Rev. Maggie Helwig says.
One response of municipal governments has been to forcibly clear these encampments, as Toronto did Nov. 24 when city crews removed tents at St. Stephen-in-the-Fields. Although St. Stephen-in-the-Fields had permitted people to sleep in the churchyard, a city notice said the land was a transportation right of way and public property and that those camping were obstructing the street. Crews also put up fencing and concrete blocks to prevent people from returning to shelter there.
Sanctuary outreach worker Greg Cook says the city has also repeatedly cleared encampments at Sanctuary, located near high-rise condos at Toronto’s bustling Bloor and Yonge intersection.
“We always had a rule that if people wanted to sleep on our property, that was fine,” Cook says. “They just couldn’t leave a structure up.” However, with rising homelessness and a lack of shelter spaces, Sanctuary began allowing people to put tents up on its property, which led to the city taking the church to court for breaking bylaws. Under Toronto’s Streets Use Bylaw, people are not permitted to erect tents and other structures on city streets. The City of Toronto withdrew its lawsuit after Olivia Chow became mayor in June 2023. But a fence remains around the park surrounding Sanctuary, put up by city crews to prevent people from setting up tents on church property.
Despite the fence at Sanctuary, some people continue to sleep on church property. Others who stop by for meals sleep wherever else they can.
Smith, who has been able to couch-surf since the weather turned colder, slept in a tent on the Sanctuary parking lot with her partner for her first few years there.
“It was cold,” Smith says. “We had candles we’d have to light up at night and be very careful that we don’t light our tent in flames when we would sleep and roll around. We’d use tarps to cover the tent and get off the ground. We’d use wooden planks … use Styrofoam to put on the bottom of the tent floor, so it was warmer and insulated. Just survival instinct.”
Ryan Hayashi, 45, also slept in a tent on Sanctuary property while he could, along with his wife Rebecca and their dog Maddo. The city’s court battle with Sanctuary eventually forced them to vacate, after which their tent was stolen.
Having a tent, Hayashi says, “made a huge difference. Sure, we couldn’t lock the door. But it was our space and it helped our dog feel a lot more comfortable … [We] could literally keep our belongings safe.
“It can happen to anyone,” Hayashi says of homelessness. Hayashi has a bachelor’s degree in English from Queen’s University and worked in publishing, then trained and worked as a watchmaker. Rebecca has a PhD in Canadian history from McMaster. The two have managed campaigns for the provincial and federal NDP.
Both became addicted to opiates after Hayashi tore a ligament in his leg in his mid-20s and a doctor prescribed him OxyContin. They stuck to prescription drugs until the cost became prohibitive, Hayashi says. They tried to get a roommate, he adds, who was addicted to crystal meth and threatened them at knifepoint.
About a year ago, he and Rebecca were evicted from their apartment. Shell-shocked, they stayed in their apartment building near the roof for a few days until police came to throw them out for trespassing. Police would not allow the couple to take their belongings, Hayashi says. According to Ontario law, landlords can keep, sell or throw out anything tenants leave behind after moving out. The couple became homeless in winter with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Currently unemployed, Hayashi describes a daily struggle for survival, spending much of his time panhandling. With the city clearing encampments, he and Rebecca find shelter wherever they can: stairwells, parking garages.
Theft is a constant problem. “We end up losing the majority of our possessions seemingly nightly,” Hayashi says.
His health has also declined. In the past year, Hayashi says, he almost died twice: the first time from pneumonia and sepsis; the second after suffering a brain bleed from a man hitting him in the back of the head—the “result of me having something that he didn’t at the time,” Hayashi says.
A further indignity is the contempt those experiencing homelessness often face. Hayashi recounts sitting in the rain on a piece of cardboard with his dog outside a Yonge Street post office two weeks earlier.
“I wasn’t panhandling,” Hayashi says. “I wasn’t in the way of the sidewalk… It was well after they had closed… This guy walks by and he just spits out loudly enough for me to hear, ‘Filthy homeless.’”
“I am not impacting your life in any way,” Hayashi recalls thinking. “I am not asking for anything. But all of a sudden I’m not human.”
The second part of this series will focus on the experiences of parishes across the country in hosting encampments of unhoused people.