I once read a story about a haunting. People costumed themselves as the dead and followed an occupying army's soldiers around, preying on their superstition and guilt.
You could almost imagine that it's going on at City Hall — the homeless posing as the ghosts of lost sympathy for the poor, camping under the roof in the square at night spooking politicians.
Of course, they're only looking for shelter. But the question, nonetheless, is how exactly is the city under the leadership of David Miller dealing with these living reminders that things aren't right? Is there a coherent strategy? Do city departments actually know what each other is doing?
According to nightly residents, City Hall security and ground workers have, in the last few weeks, shared gossip of a possible eviction on Wednesday (September 1). City officials deny there is such a plan, but the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC) organized a community meal in the square this August 12 afternoon to keep them honest.
As the crowd of 100 munches on stew, rice and biscuits, a long-haired fellow standing on a planter holds their attention. "The city," he announces, "would rather spend $6 million to put a shield around the Bloor Viaduct to stop me from killing myself when I can't take this life any more than build housing."
"My address is City Hall, Column #5," he says with both pride and humour. "And they want to kick me out of my home."
OCAP member Gaetan Heroux is next to speak, addressing the irony that sleeping in the square is actually much safer than in isolated open places where frontline workers can't find those needing services. "This is the last safe place," he says. "Even the cops tell people to come here."
But is the city actually conspiring to make this rain-sheltered sleeping space less accommodating? Cathy Crowe of TDRC and Sherbourne Health Centre tells me, "There are reports from people who sleep there that church volunteers are being written up by City Hall security."
Activists were assured by the city's shelter, housing and support and corporate services divisions and Sean Goetz-Gadon of the mayor's office that the nocturnal denizens would be safe come September, but no one would take responsibility for the initial rumours spread by security.
"And when we asked (the mayor's office) if they would stop (considering moving people) altogether," says OCAP's Mike Duroche, "they flat out refused to answer."
City motives are just as difficult to figure when it comes to the Spadina Bridge/Front Street squat.
One of its residents speaks at the City Hall nosh-in, informing us that squatters are planning to bring shopping carts of garbage to the square the next day. The squatters have been told by the city that they cannot keep their home because the strewn garbage is a health hazard, yet they've been threatened with tickets if they dump their garbage in city bins or leave bags on the curb for pickup.
The works department also informed them that they will most likely be given an eviction notice in the coming days, and squatters say police have been making regular 9 am visits.
Meanwhile, shelter, housing and support has just hired two homelessoutreach workers. "They're going to work with people like those under Spadina, who will probably soon be evicted by another department," says wind picks up, it's hard to forget the Pope Squat eviction on the very first snowfall of 2002. Heroux, finishing his speech, invokes a friend who froze to death down at the waterfront a few years ago. "He was pushed out of everywhere else."
Seven names were added to the homeless people's memorial outside the Church of the Holy Trinity this month, including one from earlier in the year no one knew about until now. TDRC staff regularly call shelters and aid groups to update them on obituaries – the list of people who ultimately find shelter in the form of the coffin. "It's at another level now," says Crowe. "The workers know it. Homeless people know it. But the response from City Hall remains the same."
The solidarity crowd gets smaller, along with the light in the sky. Soon the square is quiet. City Hall maintains a hollow glow, a vacant shell with the lights left on to create the appearance of civic vigilance.
As the homeless settle down in their beddings and volunteers show up to give nourishment to those huddling around the building, I can't shake the image of the Sheraton Centre dumping 10 times as much food in a garbage bin across the street. I imagine no one has ever tried to give the hotel a ticket.