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Jesus statue caged to protest criminalization of homelessness

By Elin Goulden

On a bright, cold December morning, more than 100 people – Anglicans and other clergy, parishioners, neighbours, supporters, representatives of the media and the local MPP – gathered on the north side of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields in Toronto, where sculptor Timothy Schmalz had just installed a cage around his statue of Panhandler Jesus. Mr. Schmalz, who is internationally renowned for his statues of Jesus as an unhoused person, installed the iron cage to protest the criminalization of homelessness, specifically the Notice of Violation that had recently been served upon the residents of the encampment around the church.

Statue of Panhandler Jesus in a cage. Photo by Michael Hudson

Mohawk elder Danny Beaton offered the traditional Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, bringing the crowd together as one mind. He gave thanks for the beauty and harmony of all beings, and especially for those who “fight for justice for Mother Earth and for their relations, for how can we call ourselves human beings if we do not?”

Bishop Andrew Asbil expressed support and gratitude for the work of the Rev. Canon Maggie Helwig and her parish in developing a relationship with the community and especially with the encampment residents. “People come where they feel safe and secure, where they will be accepted and find sanctuary and peace. It reminds us, at this time of the year especially, of Mary and Joseph who came to Bethlehem and found no room, and of the innkeeper who provided what little they had – a space in a stable – where love and Christ could be born. It is no surprise that in this front yard, a community has come to pitch their tents where they can find support and help.”

The Rev. Canon Maggie Helwig addresses the crowd. Photo by Michael Hudson

Since the spring, a small encampment of unhoused people has sprung up outside the front doors and around the sides of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields. As the City of Toronto has moved to clear unhoused people from encampments in city parks, some have come to find refuge and welcome outside St. Stephen’s, where they are able to avail themselves of the church’s outreach programs and the supports of The Neighbourhood Group next door. While the presence of the encampment has posed a physical and logistical challenge, and has drawn opposition from some neighbours, Canon Helwig and her parishioners have steadfastly supported their unhoused neighbours, recognizing that all too often they have nowhere else to go. The city’s shelter system is stretched beyond the breaking point: in October, an average of 180 callers in search of shelter were turned away every day. Even the emergency department at St. Michael’s Hospital only manages to secure shelter for 5 per cent of the unhoused patients it discharges.

On Nov. 24, the St. Stephen’s encampment was served with a Notice of Violation by the City of Toronto, with the named violations being “obstructing street” and “dwelling in street.” (Though the encampment is located between the sidewalks and the walls of the church, a city right-of-way runs across the church ground inches from the west façade of the building.) The encampment residents were given until Dec. 8 to vacate the encampment, with little likelihood of being able to find shelter anywhere else.

Bishop Andrew Asbil speaks beside the Panhandler Jesus statue. Photo by Michael Hudson

When he heard about the Notice of Violation, sculptor Timothy Schmalz, whose statue of “Panhandler Jesus” has been a familiar sight outside St. Stephen-in-the-Fields for the past nine years, reached out to Canon Helwig with the idea of installing a cage around the statue to protest the criminalization of homelessness. Canon Helwig issued a press release, inviting Bishop Asbil to be present for the unveiling of the caged statue. Media interest in the story, amplified by an article in the December issue of The Anglican, which was widely shared on social media, helped spur constructive conversations between Canon Helwig, staff of The Neighbourhood Group and city staff. Several of the encampment residents have been offered, and have accepted, indoor accommodation. While the Notice of Violation remains in place, there are no plans for immediate enforcement, and city staff in the Bylaw Enforcement and Encampment Office are helping to negotiate with their colleagues in the Transportation Department to come up with a solution that will respect the security of the remaining encampment residents until they too can access dignified indoor shelter. Canon Helwig announced this temporary reprieve to great applause from the assembled supporters.

The Toronto United Mennonite Choir, an ad hoc group who support the work of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, sing at the end of the event. Photo by Michael Hudson

Nonetheless, the threat of eviction still hangs over the encampment, and the lack of indoor shelter still poses a threat to the life and health of unhoused Torontonians. “We know we have a housing crisis in this city,” said Bishop Asbil, “and it takes all of us to have the conversations necessary to make a new way forward, to make space for all.”

Clergy and members of several faith communities were among those gathered in support of the encampment residents. An impromptu choir of some dozen members of Toronto United Mennonite Church sang two hymns: “Child of the Poor” and “Comfort, comfort, O my people.” Mary Jo Leddy, founder of Romero House, noted that “Anglicans are always in the front lines on these issues. It’s good to see.” Local MPP Jessica Bell was also in attendance, pledging to do whatever she can to support the parish and the residents of the encampment.

Elin Goulden is the diocese’s Social Justice and Advocacy consultant.