THE HOUSING CRISIS IS A REAL ESTATE GAME 
A report from Toronto on further layers of the unrelenting inequalities exposed by COVID-19.
Arundhati Roy wrote that the pandemic is a portal between worlds past and future that offers a chance to modify or discard the dysfunctional systems that regulate our societies. Roy’s sentiment is apt today more than ever: social change is long overdue.
In Toronto, Canada, there is a mounting and unignorable crisis: a critical lack of affordable and social housing, revealing a failure of infrastructure. For more than a year, the City of Toronto has targeted encampments of unhoused folks in public parks, under freeways, in vacant lots and in many districts throughout the metropolitan area — most recently at Lamport Stadium in the city’s southern West End  — with forcible and violent evictions from temporary shelters. Authorized by City officials, large groups of armed security forces (increasingly, an amalgam of the Toronto Police Service and private security firms) are dispatched to dismantle encampment communities. They tear down tents and small wooden dwellings, employ sophisticated surveillance tactics, destroy property, make arrests, dole out fines and physically assault anyone who does not comply with the City’s directives to vacate public land. The increased numbers of people dwelling in outdoor spaces correlate directly with COVID-19 and the real risk of outbreaks in shelters, yet the municipal government has done very little to address this novel threat to public health and safety for low income and unhoused city residents. Social assistance remains limited to the insufficient shelter and shelter-hotel system.
Despite language to the contrary in official statements, the tactics employed by security forces are alarmingly militant and inexorable; several people have suffered injuries as a result of encounters with police. Expulsion from encampments further jeopardizes public safety by displacing encampment residents to sites more remote from the city centre, and City data shows that the Shelter, Support & Housing Administration (SSHA) cannot keep up with the growing need for available beds regardless. As those with lived experience will attest, people tend to scatter to more inconspicuous outdoor sites when evicted from encampment communities, due to the dysfunction, inadequacy and unsafe nature of the shelter system. Encampments have proliferated due to a desperate lack of available alternatives, long term housing in particular, and many have rightly criticized the allocation of public budget to technically advanced policing measures while other vital support systems in the city remain underfunded.
There is a human cost to maintaining what Jack Halberstam calls “the regulated zones of polite society”, referring euphemistically to the upper classes. Abolition scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes these cycles of brutality and neglect as an enmeshing of organized abandonment — the purposeful disregard of vulnerable communities by the state and by capital — and organized violence, which raise barriers to accessing basic needs for specific demographics. Gilmore further describes an attempted resolution of those issues of access through punishment, policing and criminalization; a “…displacement of vulnerability to social control.” Policing is misrepresented to the public as a form of social care, a protection of common interest in the maintenance of public parks as resources available to all citizens, although as David Harvey points out in Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, public parks are not equally accessible to everyone. They are rather a prime example of the urban commons commodified: when well maintained, urban parks provide “ambience and attractiveness” to surrounding neighbourhoods, which accumulate land value with proximity, as long as such public spaces are patrolled and regulated. Parks can consequently represent a commoning of public space exclusive to more affluent classes, at the expense of significant portions of the remaining, dispossessed population.
Toronto’s housing crisis is not new and nor are encampments. Provisional solutions typically exist for those experiencing housing insecurity, in best-case scenarios. However, the recent escalation of force against encampment communities gestures to a markedly intolerant regime of governance that privileges land ownership as investment over housing as a human right, even as the COVID-19 pandemic further complicates access to secure indoor shelter. Public safety and accessibility are the ostensible rationale driving the routine clearing of encampments, and yet, public safety and accessibility are two conditions blatantly violated by the City of Toronto in the effort to establish civil order.
“WE NEED PERMANENT HOUSING NOW!” “We Are Not The Virus!!!” “SHELTERS ARE FULL/GOT NO PLACE TO GO!/DON’T FINE US.” Hand-painted signs adorn encampment sites, transmitting clear messages to passers-by. They are bold and colourful, a token to an earlier Toronto less hostile to independent businesses and diverse communities, and a visible form of resistance to the hegemonic monoculture many people view as overtaking the city. In response to the intensifying police presence at encampments over the last sixteen months, networks of community care have emerged. A particular example is the Encampment Support Network (ESN), a broad coalition of encampment residents, housing advocates, community members, organisers, musicians, academics and workers from the service industry and other frontline jobs who express a collective political will for change in Toronto, above all advocating for long term permanent housing in communities of choice. Sign painting was an early manifestation of the work of ESN, and remains a potent visual component of their action — the work of ESN is an intricate interweaving of the optic and the invisible labour of activism. Divided into autonomous neighbourhood committees, ESN functions as a volunteer-run outreach programme operating primarily under the direction of encampment residents: it is rapid-response encampment defence that has been networked in the community, bearing witness to and reporting on the coercive, confusing tactics used to vacate encampments. It is a mutual aid network, administering essential supplies according to need.
Artists also formed a large constituent of ESN’s early iteration, and shared expressions of creativity are linked to their efforts. Jeff Bierk, a founding member, is among those whose practice spans art and organizing. His work emanates a rare energy: light filters into his photographs, illuminating friends and collaborators in an intimate, tender glow. Characteristically vivid and backdropped by an elysian sky, the images he produces are almost Romantic in temper. Though many of his images are staged at the moment of capture, Jeff’s practice is rooted in collaboration and ongoing consent: the composition of an image is never arranged by himself alone, but with the synergetic involvement of those he photographs — people he has befriended over time. If emotions are usually exempt from such utilitarian civic matters as housing and property, Jeff’s portraits candidly defy this exemption. They convey an intensity of feeling, demonstrating a resolute commitment to community and care, despite how ardently the established order works to destabilize such forms of solidarity. Photographing with- and for others is thus an act of embodied resistance, and also gives a clear visualization of the work supported and promoted by ESN. Jeff’s work constitutes a crucial linking of consensual photography as social praxis to image-making as a means of controlling and directing the narrative of evictions beyond that which is broadcast by media corporations and governing bodies. The work motions to questions about the place of art in advocacy, demonstrating that to produce culture is not merely to reflect society, but rather that art can express the unyielding desire for change.
At its core, ESN’s work is animated by imaginative approaches to anti-capitalist struggle. Initially established by groups with minimal experience in organizing, the network is rooted in a humbled approach to political action, emphasizing a practice of ongoing reciprocal teaching and learning as fundamental to effective organizing. Much of this teaching was guided by community leaders Zoë Dodd and Les Harper, both of whom have worked in harm reduction; a further priority of their work with ESN is to support the thriving of encampments until better alternatives are made available by the City. Central to the network, too, is community. The implication of encampments, and ESN by extension, is that they enable community building based on systems of support, mutual aid and self-determination, radically undermining the dominant ideological powers of capital. This is indeed why these collectives pose a threat to city commissioners. Symbolically, encampments represent a permanence of home and shelter that is non-commercial. To be clear: most encampment residents do not consider outdoor spaces to be long-term solutions, especially in Toronto where winter temperatures can drop to well below -10°C and access to indoor facilities is unreliable. Encampments are not flawlessly safe, but they are the safer and preferential alternative to the thin options supplied by the City. Very importantly, they are organized and adapted by those who use them, and the capacity for collective care that exists within encampment communities must not be underestimated. The capacity for neglect by governance, however, is chronically too great, and deserves our unbroken attention.