Our Toronto churchyard encampment was a safe haven. Then the city cleared it.

At the Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, where I’m the priest, people have lived in the churchyard—and taken care of one another—for two years now

A photo of a churchyard after dark, with debris littered on the ground

The churchyard outside the Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, where people have been living for two years now. (Photograph by Steve Russell via Getty Images)

For more than 10 years, I have been the priest at the Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, a tiny, historic Anglican church at the north end of Kensington Market in downtown Toronto. It’s always been known as a safe and welcoming place: the Reverend Cam Russell and his wife started giving out food from the parish hall in the 1970s, and at least one or two people have been sleeping in the churchyard ever since. But it was in the spring of 2022 that tents began to appear in the churchyard. By that summer, they’d grown into a large encampment. 

At the time, the city was coping with pandemic illness, an economy increasingly polarized between extreme wealth and extreme poverty, a massive shelter and housing crisis, a breakdown in social solidarity and the growing effects of climate change. These issues crash over us all like waves. But they strike most at those who are made marginal in our system—racialized people, Indigenous people who carry the generational trauma of residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, people who are ill or weak or unable to cope with a viciously competitive society and people for whom one piece of bad luck can turn into an avalanche. These people may have nowhere else to go, except our churchyard. There was a series of violent encampment evictions in parks in 2021, and they’re heavily policed. Shelters are always full and turning people away in record numbers.

READ MORE: Cities will learn to live with encampments

Some of the people who arrived in 2022 lived in the yard for the next two years. It became their home—in some cases the only stable one they’d had for years. These were the people with the most complex needs, who had often been evicted from shelters, who were in and out of jail and hospital, chased from park to park. And over time we—the church community and neighbours who supported us—learned about their lives: about how one person was finely attuned to shifts in weather and the seasonal patterns of the plants, about another person’s philosophical musings, about another’s art projects and impulsive generosity. They became part of our story as we became part of theirs. Above the altar in our chapel is a bunch of artificial flowers given to us by an encampment resident last Easter, and the skirt I am wearing as I type this was a gift from the same person. When I look at the yard, I remember the person who told me she needed to stay there “to protect the grass and the plants.”

People came and went. Some stayed only for a few days until they found a friend with a couch they could sleep on, or maybe even one of the rare shelter beds. Others stayed for months, like an older woman with cancer, universally beloved and known to everyone as Mama. Her Toronto Community Housing apartment had been taken over by a gang, and she needed somewhere to live during the interminable process of rehousing. 

I can’t pretend that our work supporting the encampment was easy. We networked with a multitude of service agencies, organized harm-reduction supplies, dealt with arrangements for garbage collection and mail delivery, provided first aid and connections to medical care, helped with mental health crises, and talked to neighbours who were uncomfortable or angry. This work has called on all the resources of our staff and volunteers. But most of all, it means that we have to live, every day, every time we walk through the yard, with the heartbreaking knowledge that some of our most vulnerable community members are living in tents, in the rain, in the wind, trying to figure out how to carry out basic tasks like laundry, to manage sometimes serious medical conditions, to lead as dignified a life as anyone can while encamped in a churchyard for lack of better options.

Get our top stories sent directly to your inbox twice a week

Our volunteers have spent countless hours in the depths of winter calling Central Intake, the phone number that is the only access point for shelter beds in Toronto, trying to find spaces for some of the people who visit our evening drop-in dinner. In 2022, we were often told that their best option was to wait outside the Streets to Homes office on Peter Street, in case a chair in the lobby opened up at some point during the night. Now, that’s not even available. People are sleeping in tents outside the Peter Street office. And we are simply advised to call again and again and again. It often seems that the only way anyone can access a bed in one of the few shelter-hotels is to be present in an encampment on the exact day that it is cleared—or else, perhaps, to be sleeping on the TTC in the immediate wake of some media-grabbing episode of violence. 

There have been nights of bitter cold when the best and only thing I could do—for someone who was sick, who didn’t have shoes, who couldn’t even make it to a 24-hour Tim’s—was to walk them to the encampment and ask if anyone would let them share a tent for the night. And there was always someone who would say yes. Here, no one is turned away. People cut each other’s hair, watch each other’s possessions, reverse overdoses, help each other through bad days. One way or another, everyone has come here because they needed a place to be. And we were that one undefended place.

A photo of the Reverend Maggie Helwig,wearing large purple glasses and a purple scarf, looking to the side

The Reverend Canon Maggie Helwig has been the priest at St. Stephen-in-the-Fields for more than 10 years. (Photograph by Anne-Marie Jackson via Getty Images)

In the fall of 2022, the Department of Transportation informed us that the area used as a churchyard for over a hundred years was in fact a “city asset,” a transportation right-of-way. Like every other front yard on either side of the street, it was a remnant of Bellevue Avenue’s 1858 origins as a grand boulevard that began right outside the door of the church. Notices of a “dwell in street” by-law violation were posted on the trees. 

What followed was a year of negotiation, struggle, compromise and crisis. Finally, in late November of 2023, the tenuous safety of the churchyard was broken. I received a phone call informing me that in less than 48 hours, the encampment would be cleared. The same night, city workers came and delivered this message to residents, some of whom chose to move on at that point.

READ MORE: Why an Ontario city is now permitting homeless encampments and tiny homes in parks

I know there were people at the City of Toronto who tried to make this eviction less than brutal, and they made a difference. Shelter Services had reserved shelter-hotel rooms for the people in the encampment who wanted them—though this also meant that others seeking indoor space would not be able to access those rooms. We know that many were turned away that night. Some people took the rooms, which was a very good thing. Some had already left the previous day, mostly going to other encampments nearby. Others, most of our long-term residents, were squeezed onto the small alcoves by the wall that are indisputably church property. In the early afternoon, one person refused to move. They had accepted referrals to shelter-hotels twice over the past year, and both times had been evicted within days for trivial reasons.

I stood with that person for hours in the bitter cold, bringing hot water bottles, french vanilla coffee and vegetarian curry as they wrapped themselves up in blankets and quietly whispered prayers. After sunset, when church volunteers were serving our weekly drop-in dinner, city staff brought in the machine we know as the Claw: a huge piece of heavy machinery that seizes tents and belongings and recycling bins indiscriminately, and drags them into a trash compactor.

The remaining resident and I stood protected by a patio umbrella, watching. But police did not come for them. Supporters blocked the Claw for a while, and others used the time to gather up the belongings of the people who had been hastily dispersed. The Claw moved back and forth across the small street. Neighbours, seeing it from their windows, ran down from the apartment building next door to join our supporters. 

It was nearly midnight by the time it ended, by the time an eight-foot-high security fence went up around half of the churchyard, which the Department of Transportation has now claimed as their own. A few days later, more city trucks arrived and deposited huge concrete blocks over the fenced area. The yard that had for so long been a place where people could come, when they were lost or hungry or in need of help, is now fenced and blocked, made as inhuman as possible.

When the crews left, that one resident was still there, with their tent and their belongings. They are still there now, as I write this. Others have returned, or arrived for the first time—not a surprising development when we have people being directed here by Central Intake or discharged from hospitals to our meal programmes, with nowhere to go after that. The tents are even more tightly crowded, with the security fence and concrete blocks filling half the space, and it is even harder to keep the area clean, but people still do their best. In the extreme cold, people stack old mattresses against their tents to keep out the wind. We at the church still provide what we can: hot food, first aid, someone who cares enough to listen for a while. The human community that has grown here has not been destroyed.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.
  • By signing up, you agree to our terms of use and privacy policy. You may unsubscribe at any time.