Jackie Seymour doesn't have much more than her clothes, her friends, and her faith, she says, tapping her soiled fingers on a purple Bible. "We're a family here."
Life with her husband in their plywood shack is lived day by day, and it's a good morning when everyone fared well the night before. "Everyone's doing alright today," says Jackie's husband Doug, as he returns from his morning rounds.
Welcome to Tent City, a patch of industrial land in Toronto's port district where some 50 people live in homes cobbled out of scrap wood, donated "DuraKit" shelters, and anything that can be nailed to a two-by-four. Framed by a glittering skyline, the shantytown is a blue-plastic icon of a new social reality: Many of Canada's cities are beginning to resemble the ugly side of America.
Tonight, 5,000 people in Canada's largest city will sleep in shelters - five times the average number a decade ago.
"For Canadians, this is a big shock," says John Anderson, research director at the Centre for Social Justice in Toronto. "We did not see this until this decade. Now, people are stumbling over homeless people in the streets."
Once considered a "nanny state" with generous public healthcare, education, and unemployment programs, Canada has been whittling away social spending for the past 17 years. In the 1980s, like the US and Britain, a new generation of conservative Canadian leaders began preaching the benefits of deregulation, privatization, and cutting government spending. If it was going to succeed in free trade, argued then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Canada needed to level the playing field with the US by trimming the budget.
"The trends are parallel with the US, but there's a difference," Dr. Anderson says. "In Canada, you're starting from a more highly developed welfare state. So when you cut back, the effects are often more dramatic."
Now, as the cost of living rises and a housing shortage spans the country, the people squeezed are those on the economic fringe.
"The situation is very grave and getting worse rapidly," says Jack Layton, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the umbrella group for local governments. He estimates 1 million households are one rent check away from becoming homeless.
In Toronto, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,000 (Canadian; US$642). And nationwide, there is a dearth of units available - about one-third the normal rate.
"To rent an apartment in Toronto with a full-time minimum-wage job, you would require your whole pay check to cover rent," says Mr. Layton.
Of the thousands of homeless on Canada's streets, only 7 out of 100 are "chronic" - permanently unable to house themselves, says David Hulchanski, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto and the author of several studies on homelessness. Everyone else is homeless for just a few nights or for brief periods, and the biggest segment of those is families. "You may be able to pay $600 or $800 a month on rent, but you just can't find a place for that price," Dr. Hulchanski says.
There are no exact numbers of homeless - only tallies of people using the shelter system. That does not include the estimated 1,000 a night who end up on park benches or here at Tent City.
People like Karl Schmidt, who was kicked out of a shelter last year because his schedule as a construction worker conflicted with the shelter's hours. Mr. Schmidt eventually found his way to Tent City and built a shack.
There are indications that a growing number of Canadians want to see the social safety net repaired. Last year, a Maclean's magazine poll found that Canadians ranked ending homelessness among the top three national priorities.
The National Coalition on Housing and Homelessness and other advocates are calling on the federal government to restore its national housing policy, and asking all levels of government to dedicate 1 percent of their budgets to low-income housing. That would end homelessness in the next few years, advocates say.
The message appears to be having an impact. For the first time in eight years, federal and provincial leaders have agreed to allocate C$1.4 billion toward affordable housing. They hope it will build some 25,000 affordable units across the country in the next five years.
"After years of nothing, it's certainly a welcome start," says Michael Shapcott, spokesman for the Cooperative Housing Federation of Canada. Even though that amount would just cover the need in Toronto, Mr. Shapcott says, it is a sign that the social pendulum may be swinging back.
For now, residents of Tent City get through their winter days one meal at a time, and often with the kindness of strangers.
Thanks to donations and volunteer labor from a local construction manager, Doug and Jackie Seymour have a new plywood home. Big enough for a mattress, a card table, and a donated wood-burning stove, it is mostly water tight. But compared to the tent they were living in until last month, it is a small palace.
Sitting in their cramped room, with clothes cascading off a dresser and a Rottweiler snoozing on the mattress, Jackie says her monthly welfare check has shrunk from $639 to $139. She and Doug moved here eight months ago after the rooming house they lived in was sold.
Randy Dundas, who says he can't work because of a construction injury, has been here for 18 months. "Most of us down here, we've known each other for years and years," he says.
For Mr. Dundas, who hasn't seen his daughters (16, 18, and 31) in four years, life here offers "peace," he says. The hostels are dirty, smelly, and often unsafe, he adds. Usually, he gets free lunches and showers at the Salvation Army. "You don't have to be dirty to be homeless."
Charity groups sometimes drive their soup truck through and give out meals. Recently, someone built a number of wood-burning stoves and gave them to residents.
There is hope that a more permanent solution is in store for Tent City. In November, the city council approved a plan to move the residents off this land, owned by Home Depot, and onto a nearby parcel of city land, where it would place 29 prefabricated units with better heating and electricity. But the port authority is concerned about safety, so the plan is at a standstill.