Homeless advocates criticize Toronto’s effort to dismantle tent cities

The City of Toronto’s latest efforts to force homeless residents out of tents and other makeshift shelters will only place vulnerable people at greater risk of long-term harm, advocates said Wednesday.

Homeless advocates are arguing the city's efforts to provide temporary shelter could prove more harm than good in the long run. Photo by Evan Simons via Unsplash.
Homeless advocates are arguing the city’s efforts to provide temporary shelter could prove more harm than good in the long run. Photo by Evan Simons via Unsplash.

A newly formed network comprising outreach workers, public health professionals and anti-poverty activists said the latest wave of forced evictions from temporary dwellings on municipal land comes at a time when Toronto’s resources for the homeless are greatly overtaxed, with shelters routinely stretched close to full capacity.

Cathy Crowe, a long-time street nurse and member of the Shelter and Housing Justice Network, said the people displaced by the city’s current round of notices will likely bypass the shelter system altogether and find themselves even further on the margins of society.

“People don’t go into the shelter system, they just go somewhere else,” she said. “Often into deeper hiding, which is actually more dangerous because they’re further away from services. They’re less visible.”

City spokesman Brad Ross said the municipality is in the process of handing out notices to those who have erected makeshift shelters on municipal land such as streets, parks, ravines and underpasses.

He said the notices, which staff began distributing last Thursday, give recipients 14 days to remove their belongings from the area and take down the shelters. Those who don’t comply will have their possessions removed by city staff, he said.

Similar sweeps take place each year, he said, citing safety as the primary reason.

“There’s garbage and other debris. There’s safety concerns with open flames and use of propane and those types of things,” Ross said. “We have a responsibility at the city to ensure that public safety is maintained.”

Ross said members of Toronto’s Streets to Homes team are in contact with people affected by the notices in a bid to find them long-term housing and other supports.

But housing is in short supply in Canada’s most populous city, where residential costs continue to rise and affordable homes were a top issue in last year’s municipal election.

City data shows officials remove dozens to hundreds of makeshift shelters from municipal grounds each year.

In 2017, the city removed 313 encampments from parks and ravines, citing a bylaw preventing people from camping in parks overnight. The year before, it removed 204 camps, 142 in 2015, and 110 in 2014.

The plight of Toronto’s homeless came under scrutiny late last year as several spells of extreme cold highlighted a lack of shelter space. Facing repeated calls to take action, the city opened temporary shelters to try to deal with the problem, a step Ross said will be repeated again in 2019.

But Crowe said the additional beds don’t do much to serve a population who may have good reason to eschew traditional shelters.

“They’re out of the system for a reason,” she said. “Either they can’t tolerate the crowding and the conditions or the rules, or they want to be independent or be together.”

People avoiding the system, she said, will essentially go into hiding and set up new makeshift dwellings further off the beaten path.

Doing so may place them out of sight of city officials, but will also cut them off from relatives, community workers or other social supports that could deliver help, she said. Homeless people may also find themselves travelling further to access community services, exacerbating physical or mental health conditions in many cases.

Crowe questioned the city’s rationale for the notices, saying metal pits to help contain fires and other safety supports can be deployed in encampments for the homeless.

Leilani Farha, the Ottawa-based United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, also challenged the city’s approach to the issue.

She said the sort of sweeps taking place in Toronto, which are regular occurrences in municipalities across the country, are at odds with international human rights laws.

Centres such as Toronto need to rethink their approaches to how they interact with its most vulnerable residents, she said.

“The city needs to look at its systems for assisting people who are homeless and ask themselves, ‘is it actually responsive to the needs and wishes of that community,”’ Farha said. “The only way they can answer that is if they engage that community directly in a meaningful way.”

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