Ombudsman Toronto’s investigation finds ‘significant unfairness’ in the City’s decisions and actions regarding encampment clearings

“The overall result was significant unfairness in how the City planned, engaged stakeholders, and communicated about the encampment clearings. The City showed a lack of commitment to honouring its pledge to a human rights approach and to serving this vulnerable population with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

— Ombudsman Toronto, Investigation into the City’s Clearing of Encampments in 2021, final report, March 24, 2023

At its March 29-31 meeting, Toronto City Council reviewed the final report from the City’s Ombudsman, investigating the City’s clearing of encampments in 2021. In June and July of 2021, the City of Toronto carried out violent clearings of encampments in Trinity Bellwoods, Alexandra, and Lamport Stadium Parks, removing unhoused individuals who were residing in the parks, destroying their tents, and discarding their belongings. Well over 100 police officers and contracted private security were involved in the clearings which traumatized and displaced encampment residents, harmed their connections to community, support, and mutual aid, and violated their human rights. According to a City staff report, the total cost — including policing, private security, emergency services, clean up, parks remediation, and fencing — was over $2 million, an amount that would have been more than sufficient to provide all encampment residents in these parks with rent subsidies for a year.

Following widespread public outrage regarding the City’s treatment of encampment residents, Toronto’s Ombudsman initiated an investigation into: “1) how the City planned the clearings, 2) how the City engaged stakeholders about the clearings, and 3) how the City communicated with the public about the clearings.” 

Toronto Ombudsman Kwame Addo explained that his investigation set out to determine whether the City’s decisions and actions were fair; he determined they were not. The Ombudsman commented on the limits of his investigation. He stated that it was not within his authority to determine whether encampments should exist or are lawful. Moreover, he stated that he does not have the power to prevent the City from enforcing its by-law against camping in City parks, nor does he have the authority to investigate the Toronto Police Service. 

The Ombudsman’s in-depth investigation included conversations with encampment residents, interviews with senior and front-line staff across multiple City divisions and frontline workers from the community sector, an examination of complaints and submissions provided by the public, and a review of over 11,000 City documents (including email exchanges). Through the investigation, he found the City had failed in its duty to treat residents fairly, noting that the City has a particular responsibility to vulnerable populations. He remarked, “the City chose to clear the encampments quickly at the expense of taking a people-centred approach. This speed impacted everything that followed.” 

Highlights from the Ombudsman’s Investigation

  • City staff were under pressure from senior management to act fast to clear the encampments. For example, an email between senior staff read, “the [City Manager’s Office] is more resolved to remove the following four [encampments] in expeditious order ... [and to] clear no later than the end of June ... at war-time speed.” 
  • The City’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) was tasked with planning and coordinating the clearing of the encampments. OEM is responsible for emergency planning and management related to public safety incidents, such as apartment fires, and planned events, including festivals and parades. In general, it had no experience with encampments and no expertise in housing and homelessness or social services. 
  • While the planning process was supposed to involve all relevant City divisions, many City-employed frontline community workers felt marginalized in the process and their input and concerns regarding the treatment of vulnerable people were ignored. The Encampment Office asked OEM several questions regarding clearing plans and how to address various scenarios with encampment residents. The Ombudsman could not find any response provided to these questions. 
  • Operational plans for clearing of encampments focused on logistics and reducing the “footprint” of encampments within parks. The recognition that this is complex work involving vulnerable people was absent from the planning. For example, the operational plans did not include any provision of mental health supports. Despite this, some City staff recognized the need for these services and reached out to mental health service providers. Organizations declined to provide these services during the clearings, recognizing that their presence at the clearings would harm their relationships with encampment residents.  
  • As enforcement activities intensified, the relationship between the City and community organizations working with encampment residents soured considerably. Many community organizations opposed the clearings and knew that the trust and relationships they had built with encampment residents would be severely damaged if they were involved in the clearings.
  • The City’s actions and approach to encampment clearings damaged relationships between City staff and encampment residents. The Ombudsman commented on the problem of the City trying to play both a supportive role, such as the work of Streets to Homes staff, and an enforcement role in encampment clearings. Many encampment residents distrusted all City staff as a result. 
  • The Ombudsman’s final report also shows that City staff were directed to provide detailed information about individual encampment residents to inform the City’s encampment clearing plans. One Streets to Homes staff communicated concerns to OEM that the Streets to Homes mandate was being compromised by requiring these staff to provide this detailed information about residents. Senior City leadership disagreed with the frontline staff’s perspective. 
  • The Ombudsman determined that meaningful engagement — central to a human rights approach — was not present in the City’s planning and process for clearing the encampments. He also noted that the City had no definition of engagement in general. Communication problems were considerable. The City did not provide encampment residents or members of the public with clear information about its process for clearing encampments. There was no dedicated phone or email address for residents or the public to communicate with the City regarding encampments. Much of the City’s communication relied on media releases, which meant that information did not flow directly to encampment residents. It was an inaccessible method of communication that did not take into account the realities of encampment residents.
  • Following the City’s damaging approach to encampment clearings in June and July 2021, it changed its approach with encampment residents in the Dufferin Grove Park. In this case, the City took a gradual approach, engaged encampment residents, and provided comprehensive social and health supports, including physical and mental health supports provided on site. The clearing of the park took place over several months, not a single day. The Ombudsman described the Dufferin Grove approach as “significantly more fair” and offered lessons to inform future approaches to encampments. 
  • The Ombudsman’s interim report focused on the City’s Interdepartmental Protocol for Homeless People Camping in Public Spaces (IDP) and its Encampment Office. Adopted by City Council in 2005, the IDP is meant to guide the City’s response to encampments in public spaces. City staff have acknowledged that the IDP is outdated and does not incorporate a rights-based approach that would align with Council’s commitment to progressively advance the right to housing under the Toronto Housing Charter. The Ombudsman also identified problems with the Encampment Office which was set up to coordinate the City’s response to encampments, prior to the transfer of responsibilities to OEM. He noted that the mandate of the Encampment Office is unclear and has not been communicated to the public; as well, the office is not adequately resourced to be able to “take a larger systemic view in response to encampments.”

Ombudsman Recommendations

The Ombudsman’s interim and final reports lay out a total of 31 recommendations. Some key elements include:

  • Updating and clarifying structures and processes and ensuring that these structures and processes operate through a rights-based approach, as reflected in the City’s HousingTO Action Plan and Toronto Housing Charter; this work includes updating the IDP to guide the City’s response to encampments, ensuring that the revised IDP takes a rights-based approach, and establishing an inter-divisional Encampment Working Group that is properly resourced, with relevant expertise from all service areas and leadership grounded in a human rights approach to lead the City’s encampment work, including any planned clearings. 
  • Developing a comprehensive strategy for engaging people living in encampments, including specific strategies for engagement with Indigenous, Black, racialized, and other equity-deserving groups; clearly defining engagement, including what meaningful engagement entails; adopting a culturally appropriate and trauma-informed engagement approach working with Indigenous communities that is endorsed and receives advice from the Indigenous Affairs Office.
  • Repairing relationships with community groups through continuous engagement that builds trust and is centred on the realization of the right to adequate housing.
  • Improving communications between the City and encampment residents, community organizations, and the public; using multiple channels and clear, accessible communication; establishing a complaints process where encampment residents and members of the public can make complaints regarding the City’s encampment response.
  • Finalizing the review of the Dufferin Grove Park initiative; using lessons learned from this initiative to create a best-practice model for encampment response that can be built upon and improved through continuous learning.
  • Ensuring that a variety of steps are taken, with time provided for proper planning and resources in place, if the City decides to clear an encampment; prioritizing the needs of encampment residents and ensuring services and supports are available onsite during the day of the clearing; ensuring clear communication and a dedicated City resource for encampment residents to get information and have their questions answered regarding clearings; having a detailed plan that shows how people in encampments will be supported to access physical and mental health services; communicating to encampment residents regarding clearings in a way that includes information about their options and what to expect in the clearing process described in plain language.

The Ombudsman remarked that “encampments are not going away any time soon” and that he hopes that his recommendations will increase “fairness, transparency, and accountability of the City’s processes and decision-making” regarding encampments and with respect to vulnerable residents. 

Council’s Response

During the City Council meeting, Councillor Bravo offered the following apology to residents living in encampments and impacted by the violent clearings: 

“I want to apologize on behalf of this council for all of the people who were harmed, for the people whose belongings were destroyed, for people who were frightened, who were traumatized, as the Ombudsman has so clearly outlined, and for the people who were physically hurt in the encampment clearings, because there are a lot of apologies that have been going around. But we haven’t actually apologized to all those people in Toronto who were hurt. And I think that’s absolutely essential.”

Council passed several motions in response to the Ombudsman’s investigation, including the following:

  • “City Council endorse the recommendations in the Ombudsman’s report and in so doing, confirm its support for the Dufferin Grove approach to dealing with encampments.
  • City Council commit to working with those who reside in encampments using human rights and culturally appropriate responses.
  • City Council ensure that encampment residents are provided safe indoor space proactively by City Staff.”

A majority on Council endorsed “the goal of no encampments in the City of Toronto.” Councillor Matlow tried to replace the ‘no encampments’ motion with the following: “City Council endorse the goal of providing affordable housing and safe indoor space so that no one is forced to live in an encampment as a last resort.” His motion failed. 

He also tried to have a moratorium placed on “forceful encampment evictions” until all of the Ombudsman recommendations are implemented. The chair ruled his motion “out of order” on the grounds that Council is not allowed to direct law enforcement activities. Councillor Perks pointed out that the City did have a moratorium on the clearing of encampments at the beginning of the pandemic. It is not clear why it was allowed then and not now. Attempts to challenge the decision of the chair or allow Councillor Matlow to revise the wording of his motion were not successful. 

Councillor Matlow moved a motion that, if successful, would have established a “permanent Encampment Advisory Committee” to include residents with lived experience, advocates and experts to advise on the implementation of the Ombudsman recommendations and to be consulted prior to any eviction action to ensure encampment resident needs are addressed. Unfortunately, his motion failed. 

Councillor Bravo’s motion for a staff report was supported:

“City Council direct the appropriate City staff to report back to City Council in the fourth quarter of 2023 on:

a. a revised mandate and strategic plan to guide the City's encampment response that is aligned with both the updated Encampment Interdepartmental Protocol and the realization of the progressive right to housing as outlined in the Toronto Housing Charter;

b. the composition, leadership and mandate of the inter-divisional Encampment Working Group;

c. clear procedures required in advance of any issuing of notices of eviction;

d. minimum time threshold established between an issuing of a notice of eviction and associated procedures to move forward with a clearing; and

e. policy grounds to authorize any encampment clearings.”

A majority on Council also supported Councillor Bravo’s motion requesting a report from the City Solicitor on the impact of a recent Ontario Superior Court finding regarding encampment evictions in Kitchener-Waterloo that violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Council will receive that report in the fourth quarter of 2023.

How did your Councillor vote? Find out here.

Implementing the Ombudsman’s Recommendations

The City has committed to implementing all of the Ombudsman’s recommendations. In early March, it released an update on its progress: the City is updating its encampment Interdepartmental Protocol (IDP), as recommended by the Ombudsman. Third Party Public and Nbisiing Consulting have been hired to carry out community consultations with people with lived experience of encampments, community organizations, partners, advocates, Indigenous service providers, BIAs, and neighbourhood and resident associations in March and April. The consultants will produce a consultation report in the spring to inform the IDP update. A City staff report is being prepared to provide an update on the work underway to implement the Ombudsman’s recommendations. The City has set up an Encampment Outreach & Response webpage where updates and reports will be posted.

City staff are creating and implementing a work plan in order to carry out a functional review of the Encampment Office. They are setting up an Interdivisional Working Group and confirmed that the City’s encampment response is no longer “OEM-centric” and is now led by Shelter, Support and Housing Administration. The City will provide an update by June 30 that is expected to include a “roadmap” that outlines its plans for implementing the Ombudsman’s recommendations. Quarterly updates will be provided thereafter.

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