Artwork by Lydia He

It’s 8:00 a.m. and the benches sit empty, broken caution tape trailing from their arms. Hastily-erected signs around Allan Gardens inform those out walking themselves and their dogs at this early hour that “all park amenities, including playgrounds, are closed.” The signs also encourage readers to stay home, unless going out is absolutely necessary. But for many people who use this public park, staying home isn’t an option.

I’ve lived around the corner since mid-2013, visiting frequently to read, visit the turtles in the conservatory, and walk my dog. I know the park as a place where people congregate during the day, pouring out of the nearby shelters and ravines to hang out, visit with friends, use the public washrooms or just warm up for a minute while enjoying the exotic plants of the central Palm House.

COVID-19 has effectively shut down public space. So I’m here, on a chilly April day, to learn what’s happening to people who don’t have private space in which to shelter. I plan to spend the day talking to homeless park users (from a safe distance) about their experience during this unprecedented time.

What I find is the city’s relationship with the homeless wrought in miniature in a struggle over the park’s benches—a bizarre point of emphasis for police who seem as unsure about their public health goals as the people they’re ticketing. This becomes clear early in the day, after I meet Mohammed Jafar, who has come to the park to enjoy the first morning sun and drink a black can of Laker Ice.

Jafar was born in 1965—in Africa, he says, without telling me the country. He’s been in Toronto for nine months and spent 15 years in Calgary before that. Last night he slept in Pigeon Park, a few blocks away. He laughs when I say I’m cold in the four-degree weather. “You don’t live outdoors. This is nice!”

We’re joined by Dwayne Barton, 52, who tells me he got a ticket for sharing a joint with a buddy the other day. “They keep threatening to give us tickets that we can’t pay,” Barton says. Spending $880 on any one item, let alone a ticket, is clearly not part of the lives these men currently live.

Both seem eager to chat. Jafar is still sitting on the bench, yelling across the path to me and Barton, when two police officers in bright yellow coats ride over. “It’s gonna cost you, buddy, eh?” says the shorter officer, whose glasses peek out beneath his helmet. “The park benches are off limits.” The officer stands over Jafar, whose open can has disappeared as if by magic.

The other cop, taller and more aggressive, speaks up. “I talked to you about this two days ago. You’ve been cautioned.” There’s a fuzzy patch of Velcro on his uniform where his nametag should be.

Barton moves off, while the pair give Jafar a ticket. Afterwards, the glasses-wearing officer, Police Constable Brian James, agrees to speak with me.

“They’re screwed,” he says candidly. “They have nowhere to go, is the bottom line.” That doesn’t change his job, he says: enforcing the bylaws. “Some guys just don’t get it. Some guys have a drinking problem. [Social distancing] is the least of their problems.”

People can still come to the park, he says, and they can still sit down in the park. “They just can’t sit on areas that could pass on the virus to somebody else.” I ask if he has any options for telling people where to go. “No,” he says. “I’d like to say that we did, but no.”

“They’re screwed,” the officer says candidly. “They have nowhere to go, is the bottom line.”

Later in the day, a man who asks me to call him Ali Baba describes it as a game of cat and mouse. People use the benches, the police come, ticketing and cautioning those who don’t scatter fast enough, and then people return to the park, enjoying a respite on the benches before scattering once more.

Another officer tells me that “you can move through [the park] but you can’t congregate.” None of us are anywhere near a bench, although we’re sitting (well over six feet apart) on the concrete wall in front of the conservatory. Allan Gardens is currently receiving “special attention” from Toronto Police Services, and will be for the foreseeable future. But the police clearly aren’t certain exactly what they’re enforcing.

I don’t know that it matters, exactly. We can locate the Battle of the Benches within a larger war over who is allowed to use park space, and how they’re allowed to use it. Seen outside the lens of public health rules occasioned by the pandemic, this conflict is part of a much larger one that punishes homeless people for not having homes with a byzantine series of regulations about how they can use public space.

“You used to get a ticket for drinking. Now you get a ticket for sitting,” Luke Drayton, 30, tells me at midday.

The new regime has clearly made people in the park edgy. Some refuse to talk to me for fear of getting a ticket. Others seek out more concealed spots. I meet Kevin sitting on some rock landscaping behind the conservatory, beer in hand. “I’m not sitting on a bench!” he calls as I walk over. Kevin tells me he just turned 60. Like many of the men I speak to, he’s staying at Seaton House, the city’s largest men’s shelter. He could, theoretically, stay there all day. But there isn’t much to do, and it’s a crowded and unwelcoming space. As of Friday, 69 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in nine different shelters, including Seaton House—a disaster in waiting in a crowded system without the resources to deal with an outbreak.

Lots of people aren’t staying in shelters at all, says Susan Bender, manager of the Toronto Drop-In Network. Bender says there’s a huge rise in people sleeping rough in the city, as Jafar did last night, because they’re afraid of getting sick.

Most of the city’s drop-ins have had to close because of physical distancing rules. That narrows the number of  places that people experiencing homelessness can go at the very time when they need resources like frontline healthcare, food, access to computers and phones, and other basic necessities the most. The libraries are closed, and so is the nearby McDonald’s and Tim Horton’s. There are only seven portable washrooms scattered throughout the city for use by the homeless and there are no hand-washing stations available outdoors. “It’s a humanitarian crisis,” says Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Toronto.

At 7:30, five bike cops congregate in front of the conservatory and start to ride through the park. All around, clamours of gratitude for frontline workers echo from the apartment buildings.

By about 11:00 a.m., the benches are starting to fill up as people soak in the day’s sun. Someone is asleep on one. I watch an older guy with a yellow toque and a walker look furtively around before sitting on another, lighting a cigarette. Behind me, I hear the crack of a beer can.

The restrictions on the park are clearly creating an unsustainable situation between people experiencing homelessness and police and bylaw officers, especially as social distancing restrictions are likely to last months, if not longer. 

I spend most of the day hanging around, sitting on tree roots or the plinth of the Burns statue. Periodically, police officers bicycle through and ticket or caution people on the benches.

But getting a ticket is the least of their worries. With the exception of Drayton, the men I speak to are in their forties, fifties, or sixties. Many of them are smoking, and most of them acknowledge, unprompted, that they’re heavy drinkers. They have lived outside, or in the shelter system, for years. And the measures people are being encouraged to take in order to slow its spread and keep themselves safe are completely impossible for them. They are at high risk from COVID-19, whether or not they ever catch the virus.

It would be possible to address this situation, advocates say, by using some of the city’s many empty hotel rooms. Done right, this solution could also centralize the services people need, from food provision to health care, so they don’t need to travel all over the city to get their needs met. It would be a more efficient use of limited resources than a hodgepodge of shelters and drop-ins trying to stretch as far as they can, says Cook. It would also be far more humane.

The city has taken slow steps. Cook and his colleagues think there are only 500-600 people in hotel rooms as of last week—a small fraction of the total need. A City of Toronto release says about 1,020 rooms will be used to house homeless people. The shelter system serves more than 7,000.

I ask Bender: what, actually, is the hold-up? What restrictions, concerns or caveats keep the city from appropriating enough hotel rooms for everyone who needs one?

She’s quiet for a beat. “I think you should ask John Tory that.”

I stay in the park, with a few warm-up breaks at my home around the corner, until the end of the day. Around 6:15 it starts snowing very lightly, tiny cold flakes that leave individual wet marks on the concrete. I’m standing up by the front of the conservatory and the city is so fantastically quiet I can hear each individual car pass and each fluctuation in the hum of the HVAC unit. The birds are quieter than they were in the morning but each chirp or whistle is an individual pop in the hush.

At 7:30, five bike cops congregate in front of the conservatory and start to ride through the park. All around, clamours of gratitude for frontline workers echo from the apartment buildings.

The snow turns into rain. The lamps come on, their shades shaped like candle flames but giving no warmth. The benches are empty. The city seems empty. So many things have changed in the city since the pandemic began, but our approach to homelessness isn’t one of them.