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The naughty side of the river

The Don River has always occupied a space separate from Toronto: for decades, it prevented the city's expansion eastwards, until the construction of the Prince Edward Viaduct allowed easy travel from Cabbagetown east to the new suburbs along Danforth Avenue.

During the nineteenth century, it formed the boundary between the city of York, later Toronto, and York County. By-laws regulating behaviour on the west bank of the river, enforced by the city's police, were much more lax on the east bank, where the budget for law enforcement was more sparse. For example, taverns on the east side hosted cock fights and other illicit activities. On the west, this was less common. Nobody could swim on the city side without proper, modest attire. On the naughtier east side, nude swimming was possible. And, of course, it was a perfect location for the Don Jail. For a fascinating history of the river and its settlement by historian Jennifer Bonnell, click here.

On both sides of the river, the steep banks and ravines make it a difficult landscape to explore easily. There is a bike/ walking trail along the east side, but it's not accessible from that many places, so it takes commitment to use it. The area's relative isolation has made it an attractive place to disappear, or to live rough, for hundreds of years, but now that Toronto's eco movement is gaining more civic power, this is causing conflict between the homeless and the self-appointed guardians of our urban environment.

It's a problem without an easy solution, requiring as it does a conversation about the use of public space and what happens when one person's simple presence interferes with another's enjoyment of the space. It is estimated that there are more than 100 rough campsites along the river, used particularly in summer when dense foliage makes them harder for the police, and potential attackers, to spot. (I came across about a dozen during a two-hour walk last spring). The street nurses and other social workers who try to provide services in the area, think that there could be as many as 800 people dwelling here.

Cyclists and hikers have complained that they are accosted by the homeless. Homeless advocates say that they are being blamed for the activities of a few criminals. People strolling the river banks complain about piles of garbage and abandoned tents and shelter materials cluttering the landscape. In 2011, city workers removed all the garbage but took the garbage cans too.

Streets to Homes and local charities, do their best to help those who have taken to the riverbank to rejoin society: ID, social assistance, food, clothing, toiletries, maybe eventually an apartment and even a job. But there are as many reasons for choosing to live rough as there are people who make the choice, and the city's bed-bug ridden public housing can seem a poor alternative to your own space beside a beautiful river, close to a subway station if you need to travel or panhandle, with public washrooms in Riverdale Park. It's always been a precarious, physically arduous life--possessions will disappear if left undefended, the weather, particularly last year on this floodplain, makes it uncomfortable and potentially fatal, and there is no way of securing yourself against others who want to rob or asault you--but for some it's more attractive than the alternatives.

Every spring, the melting snow reveals dozens of abandoned encampments littered with piles of garbage and non-biodegradable shelter materials. None of them are as attractive as the one in this photo: its carefully constructed circle of stick bundles and various symbols and artifacts hanging from the surrounding trees gave it the aura of a ritual space. We didn't want to intrude for too long.

When I took this photo, it was on one of the first warm days of spring 2013. I'd always seen the camps from the subway over the valley and been curious about them. My apartment overlooks the span of the river just north of the viaduct and in the summer, sometimes I can see the smoke from campfires. The day we were there, we saw nobody, but a few weeks later, the campers were back.

The tension between various users of the river bank will only be resolved by open, genuine conversation about how to reconcile the needs of various groups. It's all part of living in a community that values its natural spaces. Let's hope this kind of discussion can happen soon. It's so far removed from "subways, subways, subways" and "sell the waterfront to the highest bidder" that we will need a total change of government to even begin to talk about it.

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