Toronto Pushes to Criminalize Homeless People and Their Supporters

toronto encampments

Experts have described Toronto’s housing market as being at “crisis level.” Over the past decade, locals have witnessed the squeeze as mortgage and rental prices soared. The supply of affordable homes could not keep up with the demand.

In the aftermath of the international health crisis known as COVID-19, with the housing and homeless crises intertwining, the public is witnessing a jaw-dropping surge in the number of homeless encampments popping up in the Toronto region of Canada.

According to CP24, an “overwhelming” number of homeless encampments have been erected recently, lining the grassy patches of city parks and making visible the previously “invisible” problem of homelessness.

In response to the cries of thousands of neighbors in need, Toronto advocates began organizing at the encampments mentioned above. At first, the kindness of volunteer groups like the Encampment Support Network led the way, supplying a cornucopia of essentials like food, water, and safety equipment. One advocate even went so far as to build insulated makeshift shelters, a gesture that was met with outrage from local law enforcement officials.

So, what was the city’s response to this issue, as human beings were thrust into the desolate state of homelessness by the thousands, forced to watch the world move from the shadows looming over their tents? As you might have guessed, the city responded with violent encampment sweeps, forced relocations, and arrests.

In a Swift Move to Relocate Visible Symbols of Poverty, Police Began Forcing Residents and Advocates Out

“Canadians that are watching this now, you should be ashamed of your country, especially your politicians. I don’t know what level of government that’s supposed to be building geared-to-income housing, but COVID has brought this to light,” one encampment resident urged in an interview with Global News.

Over the past few months, multiple encampments have been “cleared” to the tune of police brutality and arrests. With only a short time to pack, occupants of encampments were only permitted to bring two bags of their belongings with them. Onlookers watched with heavy hearts as police then barricaded city parks, lining the perimeters with massive orange fences, standing guard in lime green shirts emblazoned with the word “Security.”

Encampment residents continued to insist that these clearings did not make them feel secure.

Violence in Toronto Shelters has Tripled Since the Pandemic

While law enforcement has attempted to shed a gilded light of optimism on the subject by blandly stating they are moving many encampment residents “inside,” they are leaving out a vital detail. Encampment residents who can relocate must then navigate a shifty, violent shelter stay that statistically is unlikely to end in permanent housing. On the contrary, it’s quite likely to end in brutality or even death.

Global News recently referred to Toronto’s shelter system as an “explosion of fury and violence and blood.”

Statistics reveal that the statement is accurate. Indeed, violence in Toronto’s shelter system has increased threefold, reflecting thousands of annual occurrences.

In 2020, Toronto shelters exhibited an average of 270 violent incidents per month, which equates to over 11,600 incidents per year. That estimate really brings perspective considering the fact that Toronto’s homeless population is currently estimated to be about 10,000 individuals.

This can only mean that people in the shelter system are experiencing acts of violence more than once per year on average, or the homeless estimate is a drastic undercount. Either way, encampment residents who are “relocated indoors” run the risk of experiencing:

  • Rape
  • Robbery
  • Assault
  • Death

All of these things would happen in addition to experiencing homelessness since moving into a temporary shelter does not mean this person isn’t homeless anymore.

Any attempt to remain in the encampment will result in an arrest, which usually brings with it hefty fines and a criminal record that makes it even more difficult to obtain housing and employment.

In a way, these encampment sweeps take people who are already in the vulnerable position of homelessness and offer them two different routes to prison. Those who fight back get prison. Those who comply get prison by a different name- shelter.

As one homeless person by the name of Gru explained, “My pre-pandemic shelter experiences always put me in [the same mindset] of the institutional settings that I saw while incarcerated as a younger man … From theft to fights, dorm settings with large numbers of traumatized people are going to manifest in similar ways”.

Arrest for Unrest: Police Fight Against Housing Advocates, Too

Housing advocates clashed with police after witnessing the senseless violence that plagued encampment clearings. Soon, things went from packaging life-preserving supplies to brandishing protest signs and staging demonstrations. One particularly traumatized homeless advocate described a scene where law enforcement officials followed her after a protest and waited until she was alone to jump her. They then detained her for 14 hours before claiming it was an incident of “mistaken identity.”

Her story was one of many. As encampments continue to be swept of all visible signs of poverty and humanity, encampment residents and advocates are being placed behind bars by the dozens.

The shameful criminalization of homelessness has only increased and taken on new life, bulldozing all who stand in opposition. It comes at a price. For homeless encampment residents, that price is the loss of their belongings and the makeshift structures they once called home. For taxpayers, the price tag of criminalizing homelessness in Toronto alone is an astounding $2 million.

Contact your legislators. Demand they draft laws that protect people from homelessness. Tell them to stop enforcing laws that make it illegal for homeless people to sit, stand, sleep, or otherwise engage in life-sustaining activities in a public space.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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