Recent clearings of homeless camps in downtown Toronto have some residents concerned the city is turning to “brute force” over offering housing to address homelessness.
Before being pushed out of their homes, residents living in a camp in Moss Park near Shuter and Jarvis streets held a press conference to call on the city to offer housing and behavioral and mental health treatment options.
Several residents told the city, “you have no place for us.”
“I came back here with a tent because I feel safer than I do [in the shelters],” a woman named Sasha said during the press conference. “Most of these people have mental health and addiction issues. You need to work with them. You need to figure out what kind of housing is going to be the best situation for them. It’s just like, ‘Hey, let’s shove them here, they’re okay, bye.’ No, it’s not. We’re not okay. You can’t just say ‘bye’ to us.”
The camp clearing at Moss Park came just one week after local authorities disbanded another nearby camp at Trinity Bellwoods. Officers clashed with protestors as they constructed a fence around the residents, slowly letting them out throughout the day.
One of the protestors was Leilani Farha, the global director of Make the Shift, a housing and human rights nonprofit. Farha is also a former Special Rapporteur on poverty for the United Nations.
She said the City of Toronto is doing exactly what she told them not to do when the two parties met to discuss solutions for homelessness in 2019.
“It didn’t have to be this way,” Farha wrote on Twitter. “The City knows they’re infringing human rights and they know only dialogue will lead to lasting durable solutions. The intention here is a show of force so people in homelessness know who’s in control.”
They’ve done exactly what I asked them not to do. It didn’t have to be this way. The City knows they’re infringing #humanrights + they know only dialogue will lead to lasting durable solutions. The intention here is a show of force so ppl in #homelessness know who’s in control.
— Leilani Farha (@leilanifarha) June 22, 2021
Cassie, another Moss Park resident, said constantly moving people around the city is not a solution. It only puts people experiencing homelessness in jeopardy of being harmed. She added that the government shouldn’t remove the residents until it can provide them with a place to live.
“No matter what happens, I’ll stick to this until the end,” Cassie said.
In response to the sweeps, Encampment Support Networks Toronto, a local advocacy organization, released a statement on their social media pages condemning the acts as an example of the “violent lengths” the city will go to make homelessness invisible.
“Despite City claims that encampments must be cleared because they are ‘unsafe,’ Tuesday’s [June 22] violence makes clear that City officials do not care if houseless people live or die, as long as they do so out of sight of homeowners, tourists, and developers,” the statement reads. “The City’s commitment to clearing encampments isn’t about safety and care for residents. It is, and has always been, about invisibilizing poverty.”
This is not the first time Mayor Tory has received pushback for his treatment of Toronto residents experiencing homelessness.
In January 2020, the mayor disbursed a camp from Rosedale Valley Road. Tory said the encampments were a public health concern.
“It is not safe, and it is not appropriate to have people living in encampments in the city, so we go out about dismantling those, the city does, in a very orderly fashion,” Tory told CBC Canada at the time.
A city spokesperson said residents at the camp were given 15-days’ notice to vacate and that outreach workers attended the clean-up to help connect people with shelter. CBC Canada reports that the move followed reports of a fire coming from the camp during the previous weekend. Internal emails between city officials also claimed there was a fire risk at 10 different camps despite evidence that pointed to the contrary.
However, Cathy Crowe, a Shelter and Housing Justice Network member, said Toronto simply doesn’t have the services or shelter space to support its people experiencing homelessness.
“We’re asking for more funds for street outreach. We’re asking for care and attention to be paid so that people can be brought in, but people can be supported if they’re still outside,” Crowe told the news station.
Since the pandemic began, Toronto has worked to increase its shelter bed capacity while still maintaining social distancing requirements.
It already boasts one of Canada’s largest shelter systems, serving more than 6,000 people per night. In all, the city’s efforts resulted in Toronto renting an additional 2,400 rooms from vacant hotels to use as shelter.
On top of that, the city invested over $330 million to make its shelter system safer. It plans to spend nearly twice that amount on homeless services in 2021 as well.
However, Homes First Canada, a homeless service organization, found that over 8,700 people experience homelessness in Toronto each night. Nearly half of the people identified as homeless reported experiencing chronic homelessness. Another one-in-four are experiencing mental health issues, while 30 percent are substance abusers or drug addicts.
Meanwhile, the cost of housing in Toronto continues to skyrocket. The average home price in the city hit $1 million back in March. That represents a 14 percent increase year-over-year.
“The supply of listings is not keeping up with demand, which could present an even larger problem once population growth picks up following widespread vaccinations later this year,” Lisa Patel, president of the Toronto real estate board, told Bloomberg in a statement.
As home prices continue to swell, Toronto’s homeless people continue experiencing encampment sweeps by law enforcement. When Trinity Bellwoods was cleared, 11 people were arrested, and several others were injured.
“It’s brutal, it’s ugly, it’s coming,” said Brian, a new Moss Park resident.