As Covid-19 cases climb and temperatures drop, this winter promises to only get worse for the approximately 8,700 Torontonians experiencing homelessness on any given day. Last spring, the city of Toronto quickly responded to the pandemic by expanding its number of shelters to reduce capacities and maintain physical distancing. But a spate of devastating shelter outbreaks in April left many occupants feeling unsafe and turning back to the streets.
Encampments have since sprung up in public spaces throughout the city, from Trinity Bellwoods and Alexandra Park to Moss Park and Cherry Beach. Despite repeated efforts by city workers to dismantle encampments and assurances that evicted occupants will be moved to “safe inside spaces,” the tents and makeshift shelters keep coming back. Fear of the city’s shelters is far from unfounded: a study recently published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal revealed that people experiencing homelessness, many of whom rely on shelters, are over 20 times more likely to catch Covid-19 and over five times more likely to die after a positive test.
“Encampments are nothing new to Toronto, but they really blew up because people would rather be outdoors than risk getting sick in a shelter,” says photographer and artist Jeff Bierk, a 38-year-old Peterborough native who’s been involved in street photography and community outreach since moving to Toronto in 2008.
Bierk, a former opioid addict, first turned to photography as a way to connect with people in his new city. “After the deaths of my parents and leaving behind the community I found while I was using drugs, photography helped me fill those spaces in my life,” he says.
In response to what he describes as the exploitative photojournalism that typically covers Toronto’s homelessness crisis, Bierk developed an approach he calls collaborative portraiture. He focuses on transparency and consent with the people he photographs, with whom he splits any profits from the sale of his images. “The lived experience of the person I photograph is as much a part of creating an image as my perspective and ability with the camera,” he says.
After participating in a failed attempt to stop the city from evicting a major encampment under the Gardiner Expressway last May, Bierk helped create the Encampment Support Network, or ESN, which is run by roughly 100 volunteers who deliver basic needs like drinking water, sleeping bags and makeshift shelters to six major encampments throughout Toronto. ESN is advocating for a moratorium on evictions and pushing the city to consult directly with encampment residents to better meet their needs.
For its homelessness plan this winter, the city has opened four warming centres for extreme cold weather days and is also adding about 560 spaces to its shelter network. But ESN believes at least 1,000 additional spaces are needed, and that’s just a temporary fix. The long-term solution, of course, is affordable housing. “Everyone is framing this issue as a homelessness problem, but what we’re actually dealing with is a housing crisis,” says Bierk. “What we need to do is support people with safe and affordable housing options, instead of coercively removing them from encampments with 24-hour eviction notices and threats of fines.”
Bierk has focused his outreach work on Moss Park: after two major evictions in the summer, the encampment’s population has dwindled from 100 residents to a dozen or so people who’ve chosen to remain this winter, despite freezing temperatures. Bierk has visited the park nearly every day for the past nine months and developed close relationships with the residents, many of whom he’s also photographed.
“Photography is peripheral to my outreach work, but I always have my camera in my backpack and the images just happen organically,” he says. “Creating photographs is such a joyful and exciting experience when it’s built on trust and collaboration.”
We talked to Bierk about his work. Here are the stories behind his favourite photographs of the Moss Park encampment and its residents.
“The funny thing about this sign is that it has the Toronto Parks and Recreation motto, ‘A City Within a Park,’ and that’s what Moss Park really is: its own little city within a park. It’s been a beautiful experience working with Moss Park residents like Shawn (pictured here), a great friend who I’ve connected with so deeply that I now call him my little brother. Shawn is always checking in with neighbours to see if they need anything or have any problems, and he’s by my side helping out whenever I’m delivering water and other supplies in the park.”
“This group shot happened on the day of a big eviction in Moss Park last summer. The city’s Streets to Homes workers arrived to move people to temporary shelters, and I rushed over to defend the encampment. In the middle of that frantic hot day, my friend Shaggy (bottom centre) spontaneously wanted to do a group photo to give us a little fun break from all that was going on. Harm reduction activist Zoë Dodd (top left) posed with us, and I handed my camera to a stranger and joined in, too (bottom left).”
“Derrick Black, the self-proclaimed ‘mayor’ of Moss Park, is a long-time resident who has been demanding affordable housing from the city for himself and other residents since day one. Last year, he and other activists were involved in a failed attempt to get an Ontario Superior Court injunction that would have suspended a city bylaw banning tents and camping in parks. Derrick and I have become good friends and we like to sit in the park and birdwatch together. There’s a ton of pigeons to watch in Moss Park, but our favourite thing to do is follow the four large hawks who fly around there. Derrick’s got this really funny hawk call he does that makes me laugh every single time.”
“Derrick’s house after the first snowfall in November. He insists on staying in Moss Park, no matter how much temperatures drop, until the city provides housing to him and other residents. His defiance of the city by holding out through the evictions and cold nights has inspired a lot of folks in the park.”
“ESN has been working with Khaleel Seivwright (pictured here, left), a carpenter who builds Tiny Shelters out of plywood and insulation for people all over the city, with support from GoFundMe donations. We’ve been doing frequent Tiny Shelter drops at Moss Park, and I took this shot during our first delivery, which went to Derrick to help him stay warm this winter.”
“Moss Park resident ‘AK, Mr. Automatic,’ or AK for short, in his Tiny Shelter. We put up this sign because city workers have been coming in under the pretence of doing garbage removal and taking away what they deem to be vacant Tiny Shelters, along with residents’ belongings inside them. It’s such an utter waste of resources and energy.”
“AK with a foam dome. It’s a sleeping pod with a carbon monoxide detector that’s designed to keep people warm using only their own body heat. We’ve made about 20 of them for Moss Park residents so they can have a safe place to sleep without having to depend on open fires. The foam domes are a contentious issue because the city considers them fire hazards. But at the same time, the city is failing to provide any safe power or heating source to encampment residents, and most people are left to sleep in the cold.”
“Kassie with her dog, Kasha. Early on in the pandemic, the city moved Kassie from Moss Park to a hotel that they promised would be safe, but she was placed in the very unsafe situation of sharing a room with a male stranger. It didn’t work out and she returned to the park. Living in a park can be dangerous for women, but Kassie always ends up back at Moss Park. Her story is a clear and recurring illustration of the ineffectiveness of the city’s Covid-19 homelessness response plan. People in power have to engage with park residents to find out what their needs are and address them, and that’s something we just haven’t seen happen.”
“Bossy is a friend who’s been living in Moss Park on and off since last spring. He’s always helping out older residents with heavy lifting or cleaning, and works with me whenever I’m in the park. He’d been bugging me for weeks for a portrait, and I took this shot because he just looked so good that day.”
“Les Harper (back centre) is an Indigenous community leader and harm reduction worker. He organizes regular healing circles in Moss Park and other encampments, and has become a great friend and teacher. First Nations couple Isaiah Cada (far right), Nichole Leveck (far left) and their daughters Indiana Cada (front centre) and Nazarene Pope (second left) are incredibly talented performers: Isaiah drums and sings while Nichole and the girls dance. Their performances are a powerful and beautiful gift of ceremony to Moss Park residents, giving them the space to grieve for all the people we’ve lost in the past year.”
“This sign captures the guiding principle of the relationship between ESN and encampment residents. The housing crisis in Toronto disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous and trans people, and together, we’re fighting a colonial idea of land ownership. The idea that people can’t use public land is insane. We have to remember that we are all neighbours, and we need to take care of each other.”