While people have been living in encampments for decades, they have never been as visible as during the COVID-19 pandemic. The City of Toronto has also been dismantling encampments for a long time – more than 700 were dismantled in 2019 – but never as forcefully as this year. Yet, in all of the discussions about how politicians, police and city workers should respond to encampments, there has been little effort to understand why encampments exist and what they mean to people living in them.
As researchers at MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at Unity Health Toronto, we have been studying outreach services provided to people who live in encampments. As part of a large study of the effects of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic on people experiencing marginalization, we surveyed 127 residents of Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods, Alexandra Park, Lamport Stadium, Moss Park, Cherry Beach and Sanctuary encampments between March and June 2021 (and before the most recent evictions in July 2021). While our full report will be released in October, we believe it pertinent to release these preliminary findings to add to the current conversation on encampment evictions.
Overall, our findings suggest that the story of encampments is complex. Five results of our survey are especially important and may contradict commonly held assumptions.
Assumption 1: Most people moved to encampments from shelters
In fact, only 13 per cent of survey respondents had stayed in a traditional shelter in the month before the pandemic. During that month (the February cold), 29 per cent had lived outside on the street, 20 per cent had rented a room, apartment or house, 16 per cent had lived with family or friends, and 17 per cent had already stayed in an encampment.
Assumption 2: People moved to encampments because of the pandemic
This assumption is only partly true – 50 per cent of our survey respondents said the pandemic was the main reason that they relocated to an encampment. Other notable reasons included concerns about conditions within shelters, challenges with finding a place to live and the community support that people found in encampments.
Assumption 3: People set up camp and stayed
During the pandemic, 61 per cent of respondents said that an encampment was where they were living most often but people typically moved between several settings, including traditional shelters, shelter hotels and elsewhere on the street.
Assumption 4: There were many alternatives for people who wanted to leave encampments
Of people who looked for a shelter bed during the pandemic, 52 per cent reported rarely or never being able to find one when they needed it. Most often, they were told no beds or rooms were available. Only 55 per cent reported having been offered shelter alternatives of any kind by City of Toronto staff. For people who were offered shelter, 77 per cent were offered space in a shelter hotel. Only 4 per cent reported being offered permanent housing.
Assumption 5: Shelter hotels in their current form are the solution
During the pandemic, the City of Toronto has provided shelter for people experiencing homelessness in several hotels. We found that 75 per cent of encampment residents who had accepted offers of shelter, primarily at shelter hotels, had returned to an encampment; 29 per cent were kicked out of the shelter, 16 per cent left because of restrictions such as no pets, no guests or a limit on belongings, 11 per cent because the shelter was too far from their community and 11 per cent because of concerns about violence.
Our findings have three important lessons.
First, encampments are not an anomaly. What has changed is that they are now more visible but the existence of encampments is an indication of the long-standing crisis in both affordable housing and shelter beds in Toronto.
Second, people in temporary shelters are likely to return to encampments if shelter conditions do not improve and permanent housing solutions are unavailable. Fixing conditions in shelters is going to be a much more effective response to encampments than dramatic and excessive police-enforced evictions.
Third, understanding encampments as communities that people have built to support each other is critical to understanding what encampment residents want and need when it comes to housing, including concerns for safety. People who live in encampments deserve to be listened to. Talking to encampment residents is the only place to start.
Acknowledgements: The authors wish to acknowledge all of the encampment residents and community organizations who generously contributed their time and knowledge to the study, the members of the MARCO Encampments Evaluation team, Michelle Firestone, and our funding from the University of Toronto’s Toronto COVID-19 Action Initiative, the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Fund, and the St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation.