City officials say residents of encampments in Toronto must remove their temporary homes from city parks by April 6, but homeless advocates say some unhoused people living in tents and tiny wooden shelters have decided they are not going to move.
The city posted notices under Ontario's Trepass to Property Act on tents, light poles, trees and wooden structures in parks across Toronto on March 19. Staff have also hand-delivered notices to unhoused people. The notices say activities such as camping, setting up tents and structures, lighting fires and gathering overnight, are not allowed in city parks.
"The City of Toronto will enforce bylaws at encampments after exhausting all tools and options available to help move people in encampments to safer, indoor space," the city's Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) said in an email this week.
City warns of fires, lack of sanitation
The city considers encampments to be unsafe and unlawful, saying there have been fires, including two fatal ones in the past year, and they lack access to water and sanitation. Under Toronto's parks bylaw and street use bylaw, people are not allowed to erect structures on city property.
"An increase in the number and size of encampments has led to heightened concerns about the safety and well-being of people living outdoors, as well as the impact on the surrounding community," the city said.
Simone Schmidt, a volunteer with the Encampment Support Network (ESN), said people living in encampments are in a precarious situation. They have nowhere to go, she said. ESN is a network run by volunteers that supports people living in encampments in six locations in Toronto. The city's four largest encampments are in Alexandra Park, Trinity Bellwoods Park, Moss Park and Lamport Stadium.
"Forcing the displacement of people who have nowhere else to be that is safer than the places that they have made for themselves during a global pandemic is egregious. It's going to cause a lot more stress and distress for people who are already living in a chaotic, difficult situation," Schmidt said on Saturday.
"Pushing people around the city, chasing them from place to place, not allowing them to rest in a spot where they can access their community, their supports and their jobs, is going to make life a lot worse for people already in a very difficult situation."
14 shelters have outbreaks
Fourteen Toronto shelters have COVID-19 outbreaks as of last Thursday. Most shelters are full and temporary shelter hotels are not considered safe places, Schmidt said. Some people have been rejected by the city's new Pathway Inside program that offers indoor space to those in the four largest encampments. As well, some Indigenous people are asserting their right to live on land that is theirs, she added.
"Different encampment residents are making choices for themselves at this moment, but many people have decided that they are not going to move from the homes that they have made for themselves in encampments," Schmidt said on Saturday.
"We are hoping that the city recognizes people's right to housing and their right to make choices for themselves and that they won't crack down with violent law enforcement."
Schmidt said encampment residents want decent, affordable, permanent housing in their neighbourhoods. They don't want to move to temporary shelter hotels that they will have to leave eventually. They don't want to be in shelters "rife" with COVID-19 outbreaks. They don't want to be in institutional settings that remind them of previous institutionalization, she said.
"If the city were listening to its consultations with people, they would know that this offer of shelter hotels does not work for many people in encampments for a variety of reasons," she said.
Schmidt said the Pathway Inside program, launched on March 16, is seen as an attempt by the city to target and break up encampments that have strong community support and where people know what they want. The program is not a "proper solution" to the housing crisis, she said.
According to ESN, the city is offering the following options to encampment residents: move to a temporary shelter hotel; be removed by police enforcing the Trepass to Property Act; or move away from their communities and resettle in locations where they may be forced to move again.
New city program is for residents of 4 encampments
According to the city, Pathway Inside is "focused" on providing indoor space specifically for people living outside in Moss Park, Alexandra Park, Trinity Bellwoods and Lamport Stadium. The city has posted information about the program on poles in parks where there are encampments.
The shelter hotel program is located at 45 The Esplanade, also known as the Novotel Toronto Centre. More than 250 rooms are available. The program includes meals, showers, laundry, harm reduction programs, mental and physical health supports and a housing plan.
"This pathway inside is to offer people an inside space and partner with them on a plan to secure permanent housing," the city said.
But not everyone is eligible. Advocates have said encampment residents who have taken advantage of shelter services in the past 30 days do not qualify for the program.
The city said: "After consulting with encampment residents and their advocates, we heard a downtown hotel program close to services was essential. 45 The Esplanade meets that need. However, when a high risk referral is received, we work to ensure inside space is offered, if not at this location than other available locations."
Man who stayed at respite centre not eligible for program
Ginger Dean, another volunteer with the Encampment Support Network, said she has been trying to help encampment residents find housing. She recently spoke to city's Streets to Homes workers, then the city's 311 help line, to help a man find space in a shelter hotel. The city decided the man was not eligible because he had stayed two nights at a 24-hour respite after he was recently released from prison.
"Just as an individual on the ground, letting people use my phone, trying to access services, Central Intake, Streets to Homes, any of these shelter hotel programs, I would say 95 per cent of time you are unable to get someone safely inside when they're asking," Dean said.
"They just don't have capacity. They're full. There's no beds. Or in the case of Novotel, there's stringent criteria, meaning that all kinds of people are just ineligible for some unknown reason."
Dean said she is concerned about what is going to happen on April 6.
"My concern is just that there will be mass displacement of people from their communities and the spaces they feel safe and secure and supported in," she said.
The displacement has implications for unhoused people who have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine because it will be hard for health care workers to track them down to give them their second dose, she said.
General public needs access to parks, city says
Gord Tanner, the city's director of the homeless initiatives and prevention services unit for SSHA, said there is still "lots of room" at 45 The Esplanade.
"What we want to make sure is that we are offering the space to these individuals that have been outdoors the longest and that have told us what will meet their needs in terms of a downtown location with these supports on site," Tanner said.
He said the program has "specific criteria" and it is but one program of many offered by the city.
Tanner said there is a lot of demand by the public to use city parks because they are public spaces. He said the notices were issued because the city wants to make parks "more broadly available" to members of the public.
Since last spring, the city's Streets to Homes staff and community agencies have referred people from encampments to inside spaces. The city said staff have referred more than 200 people from Moss Park, at least 44 from Trinity Bellwoods, more than 75 from Lamport Stadium and at least 40 from Alexandra Park.
In the email, the city said before it enforces its bylaws at encampments, outreach workers go to the parks, talk to people living there and outline options for people living outside to move inside with their belongings.
"This might include access to shelter or housing," the city said. Once an encampment is vacated, the city said staff clean the site.
"Homelessness is a complex social issue that requires solutions from all orders of government, businesses, community organizations and individuals. While temporary shelters for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness are necessary to address immediate concerns around the public realm and community and individual safety, they are not permanent solutions to the current housing crisis that individuals in Toronto are experiencing," the city said.
"Ongoing focus and advocacy from the City of Toronto to other orders of government is required to ensure that the ultimate goal of creating accelerated housing for Toronto residents experiencing unhoused homelessness continues to be a priority."
Events to allow communities to show support
Schmidt said ESN is organizing events to allow community members to show their support and to indicate that they oppose the trespass notices.
On Saturday afternoon, for example, a community barbecue was held by ESN in Trinity Bellwoods Park.
"We know that people in Toronto really are supportive of their unhoused neighbours," she said.