Long before garnering international attention as a “pandemic-era folk hero,” carpenter Khaleel Seivwright built a tiny insulated shelter in a Toronto park with a painted sign boldly stating “Anyone is Welcome.” It would be the first of many. Winter 2021 was marked by mass COVID-19 outbreaks and evictions, driving Toronto’s existing housing crisis to new heights. Never intended as more than a stopgap, Khaleel’s wooden structures came to be seen by many as a form of harm reduction, a life-saving measure helping unhoused people survive brutal winter conditions.
After initially praising Khaleel’s creativity, the municipal government filed an injunction against him and served eviction notices to people living in parks across Toronto. The city then spent almost $2 million violently tearing the encampments apart while assuring the public that more effective solutions would be available. Three months later, 92 percent of former residents still did not have permanent housing. Nearly two years on, support has not materialized fast enough to keep up with rising levels of housing precarity, forcing hundreds of newly unhoused people to navigate the perpetually under-resourced shelter system.
Director Zack Russell’s feature debut Someone Lives Here follows Khaleel’s work and paints a tender portrait of life in the encampments through 58-year-old Taka. Taka refers to her shelter as “the house that built Khaleel” as the film opens, underscoring the compassionate reciprocity of Khaleel’s project, the encampments, and the film itself. They are careful not to romanticize the tiny shelters, keeping the focus squarely on resourcefulness spurred on institutional neglect and the ultimate goal of permanent, secure housing for all. Someone Lives Here is a tenacious story of community care and a clear indictment of the City of Toronto’s priorities.
I connected with Khaleel and Taka ahead of the film’s premiere at Hot Docs Film Festival to talk about their experiences with homelessness, housing advocacy, and their hopes for the future.
Spring: Taka, the documentary is framed by your narration although we never see you on screen. I appreciate what you said about having nothing left to keep for yourself aside from your image, and I’m glad the director respected your boundaries — I think the film was stronger for it. Did you have any hesitations about giving Zack authority to shape your story?
Taka: Trust was established first. I had many other offers that I firmly rejected. Zack came into my life as a helper first. Before any movie was mentioned, he helped me to move into a tiny shelter. Once I was established in a tiny shelter, that’s when Zack suggested his movie. At that time, I felt so overwhelmed and grateful to all the guys that helped me in the park. Those guys were so helpful and supportive and respectful, that I felt obliged to do my part in the story that we all shared. And that was to give voice to the voiceless. Speak from inside the box. That was my part to pay back Khaleel for his help. I thought it was right and fair because the story did not belong just to me any longer. Many wonderful people got involved and proved their integrity over the years. Some of the relationships became permanent friendships. I never felt judged by Zack at all. Maybe that’s why I felt so comfortable being honest.
Spring: How did you first learn of Khaleel? What was the process of getting your tiny shelter?
Taka: I met Zack and Ginger in Alexandra Park. They offered their help. I asked for a tent. Zack suggested Khaleel’s tiny shelter. That really blew my mind — seeing that house made me stop thinking about suicide because there was hope of surviving the winter. It took only nine days for the tiny shelter to arrive. For this period, I was staying in a tent, and it was very cold and windy. Sometimes you were lying inside and hoping for the tent would not fly away with you in it — that’s how strong the gusts were. And what a huge difference it was inside the tiny shelter, once it arrived. It took the problem of wind away. I was capable of warming the place with my body temperature. And that was the first peaceful night I had in years.
Spring: Khaleel, you mentioned that other cities have tiny shelters or allow camping in parks. Can you share some examples of what that might look like? What makes Toronto different?
Khaleel: Tiny homes and tiny shelter projects are popping up all over North America. Even during the time I was building tiny shelters, A Better Tent City, a tiny home community for unhoused people, in Kitchener was forming and thriving. There were also pods and tiny shelters, more resembling what I was doing for people, in Germany — they’re still being built. I think Toronto is a very wealthy city when compared to the rest of the world, that encourages policy and regulations that incentivizes and prioritizes housing as an investment tool instead of a human right. We have rents increasing from 2012 to 2017 by 50 per cent and wages nowhere near match that. Forty-six per cent of people living in Toronto are currently renting and this is a growing trend. I think the sad fact is that Toronto isn’t very different from many major cities around the world where they are becoming too expensive to live in for the people that grew up there. The extraction of wealth from the poorest group of people to the wealthiest is accelerating and increased homelessness is a consequence of that.
Spring: The film brought up really interesting questions about what public space is for and who “the public” even is. Taka, could you speak to that and expand on the idea of being “a refugee in your own city” that came up in the film?
Taka: Homeowners come first. Then come their extensions — their kids and their dogs. Some homeowners probably think that because they are paying for the privilege, they are entitled to extend their space into the public space. How much of that space they need is questionable. In the hierarchy of inhabitants, the unhoused are definitely below dogs. But I befriended some homeowners with very different worldviews. They came as humanitarian help. Humble and helpful. And we developed a strong friendship.
Spring: Khaleel, What are you working on now?
Khaleel: Currently, I am building and selling camper trailers as Fat Drop Trailers to create a sustainable source of income for tiny home communities just like A Better Tent City (ABTC) in Kitchener. With that, I am advocating for this tiny home model with architect John Van Nostrand and former [Chief Administrative Officer] and current founder of ABTC, Jeff Wilmer, in this year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture. The model we are proposing and advocating for is one with many tiny homes and a central building for washrooms, laundry, and showers, as well as a community building for meetings and events that has a large shared kitchen. The intention is to create a situation for folks staying outside where the focus of the operation of the community is based on feedback from the residents, where they have autonomy and the opportunity for responsibilities in building and maintaining the community they’re a part of. This approach is based on interviews done with many people living outside and drawing from the wisdom and experiences being gathered from ABTC.
Spring: Taka, what does your life look like now? What are your hopes for the future?
Taka: Due to Zack’s help, I found safe, permanent housing. I would not be able to do it without the help of Zack, who took upon himself all the mundane details of dealing with bureaucracy which I was not capable of doing any longer. Being homeless for a few years left deep emotional and mental scars. Right now I’m dealing with them. So my hope for the future is mental health. I don’t want to be a refugee in my own town; I believe I belong here in a different capacity, and I hope to find what it is.
Spring: Toronto will have the opportunity to elect a new mayor for the first time since 2014 on June 26. What changes do you hope the by-election will bring?
Khaleel: To be perfectly honest, I don’t have many hopes for the next election, only that we don’t get a mayor that sees every social problem as something requiring police to solve it. I am hopeful that there is a public that is becoming more interested in participating in our government and holding them accountable for making decisions in the best interest of people living here. I am hopeful that citizens will become aware of our government’s responsibility not to price out Torontonians from their homes and not to punish people for being homeless.
Someone Lives Here premiered on April 29, with a repeat screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on May 4, and can be streamed online from May 5-9, 2023. Tickets are on sale at hotdocs.ca.
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