Drones still buzzed overhead early Wednesday at Trinity Bellwoods Park in downtown Toronto, where large temporary fences divided the park and police maintained a substantial presence a day after protests broke out while a homeless encampment was removed amid a massive show of force.
The raid, which was strongly criticized by advocates for the homeless, called attention to the growing issue of tent villages sprouting up in city parks across Canada during the pandemic as many experiencing homelessness preferred to stay outdoors rather than risk crowded shelters.
While Toronto’s mayor argued that it was more compassionate to get people out of their tents than to leave them living outdoors in the park and blamed tensions at the scene on supporters who arrived to protest the raid, critics said the park evictions were unnecessarily heavy-handed.
“What we witnessed in Trinity Bellwoods cannot be the approach going forward,” said local councillor Joe Cressy, chair of the city’s board of health.
“The excessive display of enforcement that we witnessed yesterday erodes trust … and that erosion of trust negatively impacts our ability to support people moving out of homelessness.”
Advocates for the homeless, meanwhile, said that other Toronto encampments are facing similar eviction notices, raising the prospect of renewed tensions in the coming weeks. According to police, two people at Tuesday’s encampment clearing were charged with weapons offences and one with assaulting an officer.
Encampments are presenting a dilemma for municipal leaders across Canada. Spurred in large part by the pandemic, during which some homeless people have avoided shelters over fears of catching COVID-19 in such congregate settings, clusters of tents have become common sights in multiple cities. The response has varied, from the firm hand of police to the gentler touch of social workers.
Toronto essentially tried both approaches. Staff visited encampments repeatedly, offering support and shelter options. But as the weeks went on, eviction notices were looming in the background.
“There’s a lot of human-rights issues at play here: the right to life, the right to health,” said Leilani Farha, the former UN special rapporteur on adequate housing and now global director of housing advocacy group The Shift.
“If what the city was offering was being rejected by the people living in parks, rest assured they weren’t offering the right thing. I can tell you, no one wants to live in parks if there’s a reasonable alternative for them.”
This week, backed by police, municipal staff went to remove those still staying in tents at Trinity Bellwoods who wouldn’t accept the city’s offers. Large groups of officers went at the scene, including at least eight mounted police.
City spokesman Brad Ross said Wednesday that after the raid, 12 people accepted spots in shelters or shelter hotels, nine other people left the park after refusing city assistance and eight other people known to be living in the park could not be located. Two encampment residents subsequently returned to the park and accepted offers of indoor shelter.
But one problem for cities is that simply removing encampments from a park doesn’t prevent people from setting up in another public space.
In Montreal, the city has already used riot police twice to clear homeless camps since late last year.
“We will be playing cat-and-mouse throughout the summer,” Guylain Levasseur, a camp resident and activist, told reporters in May as one encampment was taken down. “We will find somewhere else to go. We are humans who need a place to live.”
A large camp with dozens of tents and makeshift shelters had previously been dismantled in early December. While protesters came to support the campers, no arrests were made during either operation.
Montreal is also approaching a difficult time for many when it comes to housing. Most residential rental leases expire July 1 and there is usually an annual spike in homelessness as people scramble for shelter. The city’s housing authority has received 1,000 housing assistance calls already this year, more than in all of 2020 and three times the number in 2019.
In British Columbia, where encampments went on for almost a year, at Strathcona Park near Chinatown in Vancouver and at Beacon Hill Park in Victoria, officials took a conciliatory approach.
Provincial Housing Minister David Eby pledged that those staying at the camps would be moved to housing by April 30, with a formal memorandum of agreement signed between his government and the cities involved.
But everyone involved took a slow and less confrontational approach that relied mainly on park staff, city bylaw officers, BC Housing and non-profit housing agencies working alongside activist groups negotiating and managing the decampment. There was no injunction for police to enforce.
In Toronto, critics said that more meaningful engagement with those facing homelessness is needed.
Estair Van Wagner, an assistant professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, said officials need to build trust with encampment residents. Under this approach, staff would offer people various shelter options, allowing them “free and informed” consent to leave – something unlikely to happen with police at the ready and the clock ticking as they are forced to make a decision.
Toronto Mayor John Tory, while saying that a review of Tuesday’s eviction enforcement would occur, said the heavy police presence was required to protect park residents and city outreach staff who were there to try to persuade them to leave.
But councillor Josh Matlow said that a motion he presented at council earlier this month, voted down by the mayor and his allies, would have brought all sides together to find a way to avoid situations such as Tuesday’s enforcement.
“The city would’ve been at the table with the very people who the mayor says they had concerns about … it wouldn’t have ended up being a conflagration,” Mr. Matlow said.
“The mayor shouldn’t believe for a minute that there won’t be another encampment. The problem didn’t just go away because they sent a bunch of police officers and horses into a park. They just shoved the problem under the bridge – literally – for a moment.”
OLIVER MOORE, URBAN AFFAIRS REPORTER
JEFF GRAY, QUEEN’S PARK REPORTER
The Globe and Mail, June 23, 2021