While we can applaud the City of Toronto for programs that have moved almost 1,400 people from encampments to indoor spaces since the pandemic began, our work is not close to being done.
In March, the city launched a program to convert a downtown hotel into an indoor shelter for those experiencing homelessness. Called Pathway Inside, it offers a secure space in a 250-room downtown city hotel at 45 The Esplanade to residents of four of Toronto’s main encampment sites: Moss Park, Alexandra Park, Trinity Bellwoods and Lamport Stadium. These sites were selected because of their health and safety hazards, including encampment fires and overdoses. A statement from the City says it has engaged with and listened to encampment residents to address their needs and keep them safe.
But while Pathway Inside may be a step up from the City’s attempt to put encampment residents in large, congregated shelters described as “glass cages” – with COVID-19 outbreaks, no privacy, prohibited substance use and far from their support systems – these hotel rooms still do not work for many, who see them as expansions of the shelter system in which they have experienced violence and discrimination in the past. Trust has not been established with the City, and many would rather stay outside with their supportive community.
Throughout the pandemic, residents have faced ongoing, often traumatizing attempts by the City to evict them from their encampment sites. In March, rather than “eviction” notices, the City put up “trespassing” notices in parks around the city. Different language, same meaning.
“Since May of last year, we’ve watched the city contort and change the name and process of evicting people every few months. Slapping a nice name on this ‘program’ doesn’t mean it’s any less of an eviction – the threat of criminalization if people don’t comply still exists,” states the Encampment Support Network in a tweet.
Big announcement from the city today. City renames “eviction” a “program”. Sinister PR. (thread) https://t.co/E1kYMTLGAS
— Encampment Support Network Toronto (@ESN_TO) March 16, 2021
The notices set April 6 as the deadline for people to remove all their belongings from the parks. While the City claimed that Pathway Inside would clear the four priority parks, these notices were placed in parks across the city.
That was until COVID-19 made its way into 45 The Esplanade, one of 16 Toronto shelter-based COVID-19 outbreaks. On April 1, the City announced that no enforcement action to vacate encampments would occur, meaning residents could stay in their park communities for the time being. The City said it would continue “to focus its efforts on offering the necessary means to keep people safe and support voluntary referrals into indoor space” but did not say if park evictions would resume.
However, encampment residents were faced with fear and disappointment last week as evictions resumed. Three downtown encampments, including George Hislop Park, Barbara Hall Park, and on a median of University Avenue, were cleared out Wednesday. While some residents accepted the invitation to move indoors, others refused and were displaced to unknown locations. The encampments were cleared without the presence of social workers from the Toronto Drop-In Network, even after being promised they would be consulted on decision-making to ensure safety.
Last week’s events have proven we have no more time to waste. It is time for transformation. We need to start some real conversations.
What this comes down to is that the City continues to implement temporary band-aid solutions to homelessness. The ultimate solution to homelessness – as the City itself states – is affordable, permanent housing. We must make both federal and provincial financial commitments to prioritizing housing.
The long-term solution will not happen overnight – especially since there are 81,600 households currently on the waitlist for subsidized city housing – but we can take other steps now.
First, we must stop coercing and criminalizing people who live in parks and let them choose where they want to live. It is not that encampment residents do not want a home. If they choose to live in tents in the rain and cold, it means the other options are not better for them. What they do want is a dignified home. Just like Derrick did, who turned down alternatives and waited for years for an apartment he can call home. Until then, we must support encampment communities with basic necessities such as access to clean water and bathroom facilities.
Housing can mean different things to different people. For many, it is not just simply a roof or structure over their heads. For example, in Jesse Thistle’s report on the 12 dimensions of Indigenous Homelessness – Indigenous and Black people continue to over-represent Toronto’s homeless population – he highlights that geographic, spiritual and cultural displacement or separation is also in the definition of a home. So let’s ask and help encampment residents define what home means to them. Let’s sit with them and listen.
Second, there must be enough spots inside for everyone who wants to be inside. Many people experiencing homelessness are in other parks and ravines across the city and were not offered a hotel spot, even if they wanted one. That the City has targeted only large encampment sites in the Pathway Inside program makes it seem that the City is interested only because these sites make the homelessness problem most visible.
With an addition of 25 temporary shelter sites during the pandemic, the City states there are other shelter beds available for these people. However, time and time again there is no capacity available when you call the shelter system central line. Doug Hatlem, who works with Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto (SMT), says the City needs to start being honest and admit that it doesn’t have enough shelter spaces for everyone experiencing homelessness in Toronto.
Third, the City has stated that anyone who has used a shelter in the last 30 days is not eligible for a hotel spot. But we must be more inclusive since people leave shelters for many reasons, including addiction, and may end up worse off outside than when they started in a vicious cycle. They, too, need our help.
The pandemic has amplified the harm and suffering of homelessness. Rather than applauding band-aid solutions, we must reflect on past failures and fix them now.