Violent, militarized park encampment clearings won’t end homelessness in Toronto. Here’s a human rights approach

Posted on July 26, 2021 in Inclusion Delivery System

Source: — Authors: , – Opinion/Contributors
July 26, 2021.   By Diana Chan McNally, Dr. Naheed Dosani, Contributors

Last week, Toronto witnessed a needless, violent and excessive use of police force in the removal of 11 encampment residents of Lamport Stadium. What was the result of this exercise? 26 people were arrested (including one resident of Lamport Stadium), countless eye and bodily injuries were incurred by members of the public. Only two people were brought into the shelter system.

No one was housed, and we have yet to hear about the full cost of this police-led operation.

By anyone’s metrics, the outcome from the Lamport Stadium encampment clearing — and earlier attempts by the City of Toronto to clear the Alexandra Park and Trinity Bellwoods’ encampments — have been a colossal failure. On top of the fact that no one was housed, when we look at all of these clearings together only 27 of 68 people, or 40 per cent, entered the shelter system (and, to be clear, entering the shelter system does not make anyone any less homeless). For us, as experts that work with homeless populations, it is unequivocal: the City of Toronto’s current approach to encampments simply doesn’t work.

But we have a better way.

On July 9, a letter entitled A Path Forward, co-authored by advocates and people experiencing homelessness, was released by the Toronto Drop-in Network. This letter was co-signed by 206 organizations — including key city partner agencies both operating and delivering services in shelters and homeless respites — as well as advocates, experts, former elected officials and creative leaders. Our proposal? A human rights approach to supporting unhoused people that is not only more compassionate, but represents a more effective approach to reducing encampments.

A Path Forward recommends a number of policy changes to reorient the City’s approach to homelessness toward the distinct needs and concerns of unhoused individuals. If people with lived experience feel unsafe in the shelter system, the City must believe them. Residents must be allowed to have input and control over the rules and services in place in shelters to ensure that their health and safety needs are supported and met. As members of the public, we expect our government’s services to meet our needs, and that involves having opportunities to provide meaningful feedback — so why are shelters exempt from this, and people experiencing homelessness left unheard?

If people feel unsafe inside shelters, because we fail to believe them and act upon their concerns, they will ultimately return to parks. Beyond this, the shelter system is also stretched: there just isn’t enough space in the system to accommodate everyone who is currently unhoused. A strategy for reducing encampments must be predicated on making shelters safer and ensuring enough space so that people can both access and will freely choose to use the system without violent, militarized enforcement.

The letter also simultaneously recommends that the City of Toronto move toward creating purpose-built, rent-geared-to-income (RGI) housing, and away from upholding private market housing, which is increasingly unaffordable. With 20,000 people having used the shelter system during COVID-19, Torontonians are experiencing a high level of precarity: entire industries have all but disappeared, rent prices are rising, and homelessness is a real and present risk for many. While the focus is often on supportive housing for people living with mental health and substance use barriers, the reality is that the majority of people experiencing homelessness, or on the cusp of becoming unhoused, simply cannot afford to live in Toronto. Supportive housing is still necessary for some, and accessible housing is much needed for people living with disability, but the only real answer to homelessness is affordable housing.

A Path Forward, our proposed road map to addressing homelessness, was brought to Mayor Tory with a request to add it to council’s July agenda for debate. Unfortunately, this request was rejected.

Until people feel safe entering the shelter system, and until the housing stock can meet the current and future need (the social housing wait-list is still over 81,000 households long), people will remain in encampments. There is no overnight solution to this, and forcibly removing encampments in parks doesn’t reduce the number of people living outdoors — it merely disperses them further away from grounding relationships and vital services they need to stay well. The United NationsCentre for Disease Control & PreventionPublic Health Ontario, and other authorities have produced guidelines that explicitly recommend against the removal of encampments on the basis of human rights and public health. Further to this, A Path Forward upholds the recommendations of these authorities, and asks the City to adopt A National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada, co-authored by Leilani Farha, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing.

While encampments are not ideal, and are not a permanent solution to the crisis of homelessness, they must not be criminalized or removed until the governments can provide reasonable alternatives. When the City of Toronto cites health and safety concerns as a reason for encampment removal, we must remember that this is the result of a societal failure to provide access to housing, let alone running water, bathrooms, and other basic necessities needed to ensure the right to life — and good health during a pandemic.

To Mayor Tory we say: please listen to us, work with us, and adopt A Path Forward. Five of your colleagues, Councillors Matlow, Layton, Perks, Carroll, and Wong-Tam, have echoed this call and demanded an end to the violence, as have over 2,600 members of the public. A Path Forward is the only way forward to ensure a compassionate Toronto where everyone, regardless of living situation, can be well and belong.

Diana Chan McNally is the Training and Engagement Coordinator for the Toronto Drop-in Network, an umbrella of 56 agencies across the City of Toronto supporting low-income individuals. She is also a front-line worker of the past seven years and an instructor of Social Service Work at George Brown College. @Diana_C_McNally

Dr. Naheed Dosani is a Palliative Care Physician and Health Justice Activist who serves as Lecturer for the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto and Assistant Clinical Professor for the Department of Family Medicine at McMaster University. Follow him at @NaheedD


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