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City fire crews respond to flurry of fires across several Toronto homeless encampments

Last Updated Dec 7, 2020 at 11:14 pm EST

A group of homeless men and women have said it feels safer to live in a tent at a city park than to stay in shelters or hotels far from services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nathan Dumlao

Toronto’s fire chief is sounding the alarm about the dangers of makeshift shelters, after crews put out nine homeless encampment fires over the weekend.

One fire involved a winterized sleeping pod that burst into flames at HTO Park on Queen’s Quay.

The green foam-based pods can attach to tents and have been keeping encampment residents warm as the temperatures drop.

But Chief Matthew Pegg warns they’re constructed from highly flammable insulation and toxic while burning.

“When these polystyrene-based pods are exposed to heat, hot surfaces, sparks, open flame, or other ignition sources they represent an immediate threat to life for those occupying them.”

There have been 226 tent fires so far this year. One person died in May.

Fortunately, no one was hurt in the weekend fires, but Pegg says the pods are not a suitable or safe means of shelter.

Advocates feel the city has fixated on the fires.

“We have every year Christmas tree fires and have had Christmas tree fires for decades, but we don’t ban Christmas trees,” says Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor with Sanctuary Toronto. “The appropriate response would be to make these things safe.”

He admits the pods are not ideal, but points to a severe lack of affordable housing, and shelters that are overflowing in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

“Being outside for many people is a safer option than being indoors in a shelter system that really doesn’t have room for everybody that’s in encampments anyway.”

Johnson Hatlem says the city has failed to meaningfully address the housing crisis and implement the recommendations made after a coroner’s inquest into the fiery death of Grant Faulkner in 2015. They include providing safe heat sources, fire retardant blankets, and improving outreach services.

“We’d all prefer for people to be in appropriate, safe, affordable housing, but if they’re not, we’re going to support them the best way we can.”

For now, Johnson Hatlem says they will continue to construct the pods and provide people with tents.

“It’s a failed strategy in the drug war to only criminalize drugs instead of providing safe supply and harm reduction equipment. We think the same thing goes for the encampments.”

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