“People need housing to build a better life”: A Q&A with Khaleel Seivwright, who built 109 tiny shelters to fight Toronto’s homelessness crisis
At the height of the pandemic, the carpenter constructed and gave away small homes to unhoused people across the city. The new documentary Someone Lives Here shares his story
In fall 2020, Khaleel Seivwright shot to fame as the vigilante carpenter building compact, insulated dwellings for Toronto’s unhoused community. His “tiny shelters”—less than 10 square metres and heated only by the body temperature of the person sleeping inside—earned support on social media and financial backing via a GoFundMe page (as well as a shout-out from Drew Barrymore). But his plans were thwarted when the city issued an injunction in February of 2021 and ultimately brought the project to a halt. In the new documentary Someone Lives Here, screening this week at Hot Docs, filmmaker Zack Russell presents Seivwright’s story in the broader context of Toronto’s homelessness crisis and government inaction. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in a movie, but Zack was extremely persistent,” says Seivwright, who shies away from terms like “hero” and “activist.” Here, he talks about the inspiration for his work, whether a new mayor could fix the housing crisis and how he plans to move forward.
The documentary begins after you earned local celebrity status for building tiny shelters, but how did this whole thing start?
I was working as a carpenter in Toronto when the pandemic started—reframings, renovations, that kind of thing. I did a lot of work in Etobicoke and Mississauga, and when I was driving to work, I started noticing more and more tents, people living in parks, which was what happened during the pandemic. I kept thinking to myself, Okay, it’s summer now, but what are these people going to do when the temperature drops? A few years ago, I spent five months living in a tent in downtown Vancouver while I was trying to save up money to buy a car. That was during a particularly cold winter, so I guess I had a better understanding than most of the experience these people were in for.
Where did the idea for the tiny shelters come from?
I had built something similar when I was living in BC. It was an intentional eco-community, which meant that everyone shared responsibility for things like food and child care. For a while, I was staying in trailers or tents with friends, but I decided I wanted to build something for myself, and the tiny shelter model is what I decided on. It’s pretty basic: insulation, a vapour barrier on the inside to prevent moisture build-up and a weather barrier on the exterior. The small size means that the space can be heated entirely by a person’s body, which is why it seemed like such a good option for people living in parks. The first one I built in Toronto was in the Don Valley. I went out and got a generator and all of the materials I needed and put it up. I chose that location because it was somewhat secluded, so I felt like nobody was going to come along and tell me it wasn’t allowed. My idea was that anyone could stay there (that’s what I wrote on a little sign that I attached to the building), but I also thought it was reassuring to have it there just in case I ended up needing a place to stay. I was living in a room at Dovercourt and Dupont at the time, but housing can be precarious.
Related: A photo essay from the Moss Park encampment
Did you end up needing to stay in a tiny shelter?
I did actually spend a couple of nights in one. Not because I didn’t have anywhere else to stay, but there were some close calls. I think I moved six times during the filming of the documentary—once because of a renoviction. Finding a place to live downtown has become unrealistic for more and more people.
How did you pay for the first tiny shelter?
I paid for it myself, and it cost about $1,300. After that, I started a GoFundMe. It was slow, but people I work with started donating materials, and I got some financial donations—enough money that I could rent a garage and start building. Early on, I was just going around to the places where I knew people were living in tents or outside and asking them if they might be interested. The first house I ever gave away was to a guy named Richie, who was living on the corner of Parkside and Lake Shore. I showed him a picture and asked if he would be interested. He said, “Yeah, sure. How much will it cost?”
I had given away a few houses when I got a call from a CBC journalist who had seen the one by the Don Valley while out for a run. He told me he wanted to write a story about what I was doing. When the story came out, the donations to the GoFundMe exploded. I think I received more than $100,000 in that first week, which was enough that I could quit my job and work on making the shelters full time, and it just kept coming. That was in late October 2020, and for almost two months, we—almost 50 volunteers and I—were producing about three houses every day. I think we ended up building 109 before the city got involved and ultimately served me with an injunction.
That’s a lot of building. Were you working around the clock?
Pretty much. I was up every morning at 6 a.m., meeting volunteers at Home Depot by 7 a.m. to pick up materials and then heading to the garage and building until about 7 p.m. In the evenings, I would get in the trailer and deliver the new shelters. Most often it was to the obvious places: Trinity Bellwoods Park, Alexandra Park. But some of them were placed in smaller encampment communities in ravines. I made one for a father and son in Vaughan. The dad had lost his job, and they had recently become unhoused, so he sent an email and I dropped off a tiny shelter in their neighbour’s driveway. I guess they were hoping to live there. At home, I would answer emails for a few hours. I was getting like 100 messages a day—from people who needed shelter, from people who wanted to help, from media. That’s how I first heard from Zack, the director of the documentary. He sent an email saying that he thought what I was doing was really cool and that he would love to work on something together. I was hesitant, but he was incredibly persistent.
How did he win you over?
I told him that I wanted to make a how-to video so that other people could use the same model to build shelters, and he put the whole thing together in like a day. I guess that convinced me he was legit.
The schedule you describe is gruelling. A lot of people saw the encampments and wanted to help or maybe donated to a food bank, but you really went above and beyond. What drove you to devote yourself so completely?
I think, like you said, there are a lot of people who want to help, but they don’t know what they could do, or maybe it doesn’t feel like enough. When I started this project and saw the difference that it was making, it was like, yes—I know what needs to be done. I have always been someone who wants to come up with solutions, and to see the difference we could make in people’s lives was very motivating. More than one person we delivered a shelter to said that, without it, they might have died. Something a lot of people may not realize is that by giving a person a place that is warm and safe—somewhere they can lock their door, where they can leave their clothing and their medication and not be afraid of getting robbed or attacked—you are giving them the opportunity to fulfill a basic human need, which is reliable, consistent sleep. Only after that need is met can they start building a life, doing the things they need to do to make their life better.
You mentioned the City of Toronto’s involvement, which consisted of an injunction to stop your work and the removal of existing shelters from parks. When city staff first reached out to you, it seemed like they were interested in collaborating. Was that ever the reality?
I’m honestly not sure. I had a few calls with Dan Breault, who was a program manager in encampment support, and he really did seem interested in how we could work this out and do something together. I felt like he saw the logic of the tiny shelters and how they could provide a better alternative to tents and tarps. But then I don’t know exactly what happened. This was my first experience dealing with government bureaucracy, and it felt like there was very little communication between various departments. There is so much effort that goes into ignoring reality. It was incredibly frustrating.
When did you reach peak frustration?
That was probably when councillor Michael Thompson said that the tiny shelters were not fire safe—without ever commissioning a fire inspection. I actually did have a fire inspection conducted by a friend of mine who worked for the fire department and did inspections on houses, and he said the structures were safe. Every one had a smoke alarm, and many had fire extinguishers. I think the bigger issue for the city was liability. Like, if they condoned my shelters and then something happened, they could be held accountable. Which didn’t make sense because living in a tent, where you need an external heat source, is far more dangerous. Who is holding the city accountable for people living in tents, for people living in the freezing cold?
John Tory does not come off very well in the doc, condemning your shelters and ordering violent evictions. Could a new mayor be a way to address Toronto’s homelessness crisis?
I do think that a new mayor could champion a new approach, one that isn’t about addressing every issue by expanding the police budget and police presence. The eviction at Trinity Bellwoods in the summer of 2021 was like a military operation, and when you look at how much money the city spent clearing people from parks—$2 million—it’s just wrong. And that is not just my opinion: Toronto’s ombudsman has condemned the way the city handled those evictions.
There is a scene at the very end of the doc, after the eviction, where it’s just footage of people enjoying the park, having picnics, playing with their dogs. It’s typical park activity, but it feels so…
Eerie. I am not the filmmaker, but I think it was a really powerful scene. It’s like, The homeless people are gone now—we can forget all of that unpleasantness and go back to the way things were. It’s so eerie because it all looks really idyllic, but what has been swept under the rug? I think you have a lot of people who go to school, go on to college or university, get a job, and there is this feeling of, I have done what was asked of me, I have followed all the rules, and I deserve this: I deserve a nice house, I deserve to be able to spend time in a park that doesn’t have people living in tents. The problem is that our system doesn’t work for everyone, and a lot of people get left out. But most people don’t want to think about the systems that result in homelessness, so it’s easier to just pretend it doesn’t exist.
In the doc, you say you don’t consider yourself an activist, but you sound like one.
The word activist is one that doesn’t feel right for me. I think of myself as a creator. I don’t want to be the one debating or lobbying. I just saw a problem and came up with a solution. Not a permanent solution, but a way that I could make a difference in the short term.
Maybe you should consider a mayoral run. Toronto could do a lot worse.
Ha—that is a hard no. I see my future being in an off-grid community, splitting wood, not drowning in bureaucracy.
What are you up to these days?
In 2022, I launched the company Fat Drop Trailers, which makes lightweight, affordable campers. The profits from that business are going toward a new project I’m working on, advocating for a tiny home community model. It’s similar to something called A Better Tent City, which has been operating for three years in Kitchener. The houses are slightly larger—you can stand up in them—and there is a communal kitchen and meeting space, a place to do laundry and shower. One of the things that so many people lost with the encampment evictions was the community they were part of. Our current shelter system, where you might have a bed but then you have to leave for eight hours a day, doesn’t provide that. I’m working with an architect named John Van Nostrand, and we’re presenting our vision at the Venice Biennale for Architecture next month.
Any thoughts on where such a community could be located? In the doc, you see some examples of NIMBYism when it comes to this issue.
Right. We’re not at that stage yet, but it’s true that some people have a very different reaction to seeing tent cities than I did—they start to worry about the value of their property. That is something I just don’t understand. What I have been focused on is going around and talking to people who are unhoused and asking them what they think and what kinds of things they would like to see. It’s important for their voices to be part of this conversation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.