June 22 was a shameful day for Toronto. Our neighbours who are experiencing homelessness were forcibly removed from their encampment at Trinity Bellwoods Park by well over 100 police officers and contracted private security guards. Residents and advocates across the city watched in horror as the rights of those most vulnerable in our city were violated.
The pandemic has forced those without housing to make a difficult choice between setting up temporary residences in parks or entering shelter spaces that feel unsafe. In the City’s own March 2021 survey of current and former encampment residents, residents expressed health concerns due to COVID-19 as a reason for not wanting to engage with the shelter system but, by far, the biggest deterrent was the lack of safety. They feel safer outside. Days before the Trinity Bellwoods eviction, encampment resident Jimmy Pudjunas told CBC that he’s lived in shelters, but they are too violent for him and make his mental health deteriorate. “If I went back, I’d snap,” he said.
Encampments are a symptom of the city’s longstanding housing and homelessness crisis. They are the result of an unjust economic system and the failures of all levels of government to build sufficient affordable and supportive housing. Indigenous, Black, and other racialized groups have been hardest hit by the pandemic, and they have also borne the brunt of the housing and homelessness crisis — they are overrepresented in the homeless population relative to their share of the general population. Over a third of encampment residents are Indigenous. Encampments must also be understood within the context of systemic racism and of colonialism and the ongoing displacement of Indigenous people. The City said it “restored” Trinity Bellwoods Park for all residents, but we should all remember that encampments are located on Indigenous lands and Treaty territory.
The solution to this very challenging problem is not to criminalize poor, Indigenous, or racialized people. And it certainly is not to bring police in on matters that, as witnessed many times over, they have no expertise in handling — homelessness, substance use, and mental health.
What we saw on Tuesday is not the Toronto we want to rebuild as we move into COVID recovery. There is another path forward. We can be the city that our most vulnerable deserve and need, the city we all deserve and need. We can act on the lessons we learned from the pandemic, including that the city cannot thrive if those most marginalized are not supported to thrive. We can act on the lessons learned from the horrors of residential schools and ongoing colonial systems by treating Indigenous residents who are experiencing homelessness with compassion and honouring their special relationship to the land.
We call on the City to cease all future encampment evictions, to revoke the Notices of Trespass recently posted at Scadding Court, Moss Park, and (again) Lamport Stadium. Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa should use her powers under the Ontario Health and Promotion Act to declare a moratorium on clearings, as Health Providers Against Poverty and Street Nurses Network have called for her to do.
The City needs to return to its 2019 commitment to taking a human rights approach to housing.
These rights, enshrined in the Ontario Human Rights Code, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and international law, afford all residents, regardless of their housing status, the right to dignity, autonomy, agency, and self-determination. All of us have the right to choose our own residence and decide where to live, and we are protected against forced eviction and arbitrary destruction or demolition of our homes, even if those homes are made of improvised materials and established without legal authority.
No one is saying encampments are a long-term solution to homelessness. But while encampment residents wait for the City to provide adequate, affordable long-term housing solutions that meet their needs, the City has a responsibility to meet the basic needs of encampment residents, like drinking water, sanitation facilities, and harm reduction supports. As the Encampment Support Network has stated, “Shifting the blame for inadequate housing options to other levels of government does not pass muster when it is fully within the City of Toronto’s power and jurisdiction to provide humanitarian aid to the places where people have formed their own systems of support in the meantime.”
Encampment residents are experts in their own lives. Creating safe, affordable, dignified, and sustainable housing solutions for those experiencing homelessness must involve meaningful engagement and dialogue with them — meaning shared decision-making regarding the future of any encampment and acceptable alternative housing, both in the short term and longer term.
This will take time and a lot of hard work. The City will have to dedicate resources and coordinate efforts. It’s not the easy path, but it’s the right path.
You can help us hold Mayor John Tory and City Council accountable for upholding the human rights approach to housing. We urge you to take the following actions:
Call, email, write, or tweet at Mayor John Tory and your local Councillor
Ask them to end forced encampment evictions and take a human rights approach to housing by working with encampment residents to find dignified solutions to homelessness.
Call, email, write, or tweet at Dr. Eileen de Villa
Ask her to use her power under the Ontario Health and Promotion Act to declare a moratorium on encampment clearings.
- City of Toronto: HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan (December 2019)
- The Shift (Statement): Homeless encampment + the City of Toronto’s trespass notices and pending enforcement (June 2021); Twitter: @make_theshift
- UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing: A National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada (April 30, 2020)
- Encampment Support Network: An ad-hoc, volunteer-run network supporting people living in encampments in Toronto; Twitter: @ESN_TO
- Jennifer Pagliaro: This Week in Politics newsletter (June 25, 2021)
- CBC News: "Toronto's promise for permanent housing ends standoff in Trinity Bellwoods park, advocate says" (June 22, 2021)
- CTV News: "everal arrests made after Toronto clears out large encampment at Trinity Bellwoods Park" (June 22, 2021)
- CBC News: "'I'll be crushed if I lose it': Fears of Toronto encampment clearings worry homeless people" (June 16, 2021)
- Toronto.com: "Advocates demand Toronto 'immediately cease and desist the violent displacement of encampment residents" (June 16, 2021)