Toronto carpenter builds tiny wooden shelters for those experiencing homelessness
TORONTO -- With winter right around the corner, one Toronto carpenter is using his skills to help those who would otherwise be stranded on the streets in frigid temperatures.
Khaleel Seivwright is building and donating tiny, portable homes.
Speaking from the garage he rented to hand-build wooden shelters on wheels, Seivwright told CTV News Channel he wanted to make “something that would be useful for people that are staying outside this winter.”
He isn’t building in the dark -- he knows his tiny shelters work because the first one he constructed was actually for himself.
“I built the first one a few years ago in a community in B.C.,” he said. The wooden home had six windows and a skylight, and he slept in it through temperatures as cold as -15 degrees Celsius.
“It was comfortable,” he said. Then he realized he could use his skills to help others as well.
“It’s just something I already knew how to do.”
Even in a non-pandemic year, winter is a fraught time in Toronto for those experiencing homelessness, with city shelters often at peak capacity, and many left with nowhere to sleep at night except for tents.
Last year, 128 people experiencing homelessness in Toronto died. Fifty-two of them died between October and January, as temperatures grew colder in the city.
It’s an issue that can’t be fixed overnight. But Seivwright is aiming to help as much as he can, one person at a time.
The tiny homes are built using wooden beams, and are insulated with the same material that a regular home would be.
"We’re putting them on caster wheels to make them portable,” he added. The shelters will also have smoke detectors to ensure safety.
The structure, which is big enough to lie down in and sit up in, is designed to stay warm using only a person’s body heat. The new design, with only one small window, has less heat loss than his first tiny home, and Seivwright estimates that it will be able to keep an occupant comfortable in -20 degrees Celsius.
The shelters do come at a cost -- around $1,000 per tiny home. Seivwright said the cost of wood is much higher than it normally is due to COVID-19 shortages and difficulties with transportation, and then there’s the other building materials, such as the insulation and the wheels to worry about.
But although it sounds daunting, the project has already received tons of support. A GoFundMe set up for the “Toronto Tiny Shelters” has raised more than $88,000 as of Thursday night.
Through updates on the GoFundMe, Seivwright documented the process of building the first of the donated shelters.
“This shelter was delivered today to a man named Ritchie,” he wrote in an October 18 update. A few days later, he posted a picture of a man standing beside the shelter outside. “He says he’s doing good,” the update stated.
The recipients of the shelters — two have been built and delivered so far, according to the GoFundMe — have been found by Seivwright himself.
“The process that I’ve been using is just going around and talking to people that are staying in tents and just seeing how they’re doing, and what their plans are for the winter, and then asking if they could use one of these shelters,” he explained.
With the support through the GoFundMe, he says they are going to be moving into a warehouse soon to build more. And already, he’s had not only donations of money and materials, but time — other volunteers have come on board to help him build these tiny homes.
“We’re going to get a larger space to store material and get more volunteers involved to continue building,” he said.
It’s unclear if Seivwright’s shelters could come into conflict with any bylaws or zoning regulations. CTVNews.ca reached out to the City of Toronto for comment, but did not receive a response by publication time.
The City of Toronto runs 75 shelter or respite sites. In an October 14 release on their pandemic plan for people experiencing homelessness, they said they are currently distributing more than 100,000 pieces of PPE to the homelessness sector for staff to use and that they’ve opened 40 temporary facilities since March in order to help with physical distancing in the shelter system.
In a statement, city spokesperson Alex Burke said the structures are not permitted, and that camping in any structure in a Toronto park is not permitted.
Instead, he said the city is focused on ensuring that people be housed indoors, with the city’s shelter system offering 6,800 spaces.
“Our winter plan presented to Council this week will provide approximately 560 additional spaces. The City will also activate spaces at four warming centres and increase community outreach during extreme cold weather alerts,” Burke said.
Seivwright says the city hasn’t said anything to him about his shelters. But the recipients of the tiny homes have.
“So far they have been [happy],” he said.