Crisis workers and some councillors are calling on the City of Toronto to halt its renewed search for security companies to public patrol parks, saying the move will lead to heavy-handed treatment of people experiencing homelessness.
The city re-issued a request for proposals from security companies last week after it said the first round of competitive bidding failed to land an acceptable bid. The plan to station private guards in city parks has drawn criticism and concern about surveilling and potentially arresting people who are homeless and living in the spaces.
The city has said encampments are unsafe, unhealthy and illegal. It maintains that its 1,500 parks are public places for use by all, bylaws prevent "encroaching upon or taking possession of a park" and it will enforce those rules.
Coun. Gord Perks, who represents Ward 4, Parkdale-High Park, is among the critics of the plan. The city should drop the RFP, he said, calling it a waste of money.
I don't think a single dime of this is well spent. - Coun. Gord Perks, Ward 4, Parkdale-High Park
"I don't think a single dime of this is well spent," Perks said.
"If all you're doing is spending money on people who are going to rush them and send them to jail, that doesn't help somebody get off the streets."
Encampments have sprung up in city parks and other public spaces in recent years as Toronto's shelter and affordable housing crunch has deepened in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last summer, Toronto Police clashed with unhoused people and community advocates as they attempted to clear three city parks of encampments.
The enforcement blitz resulted in dozens of arrests and cost the city nearly $2 million.
City works to find security provider
Finding a security firm that can deliver the service appears to have been a challenge. Staff began looking for a company to patrol a number of city parks in the fall of 2021, but an existing firm under contract said it could not fulfil the request.
In April, the city awarded a temporary contract to provide park security to two separate firms for $500,000 until a contract could be awarded through a competitive process a month later.
At the end of May, staff say they reviewed submissions from a competitive process and determined all of the bids did not meet the criteria of the request for proposal (RFP) and did not award the contract.
The city said the latest RFP was posted on Aug. 24 and includes new requirements to ensure the scope of the work is clear to bidding companies.
"The RFP … contains additional details, including qualifications, equipment and uniform requirements," a city statement said.
City aims to avoid 'repeat' of 2021 encampments
City spokesman Brad Ross said security guards will not be used to arrest people as they set up encampments in parks.
"The strategy for 2022 was to avoid a repeat essentially of what we saw in 2021," he said.
"Their primary role is to observe and report the establishment of an encampment and to advise the city, who would then send … social workers to essentially engage with those individuals to make sure that they're aware of the various services that are available to them."
Ross noted that security guards are allowed to act if they witness criminal activity and need to intervene. In those instances, they can perform a citizens' arrest, he said.
Perks questioned why the RFP has been issued during Toronto's municipal election period, when council won't meet again to discuss the matter until later this year.
Coun. Josh Matlow also slammed the new request for proposals in a social media post, calling on Mayor John Tory and the city to suspend the RFP.
"The City of Toronto should not be hiring private security companies to surveil and arrest people in public spaces," Matlow said.
"This is shortsighted, dystopian and fundamentally wrong."
Diana Chan McNally, a crisis worker and advocate for those experiencing homelessness, said she too wants to see the city reverse course on the plan and spend the money to provide more shelter space. The city doesn't currently have enough safe space in its system, she said.
"It's deeply unfair and inequitable, and we're criminalizing people for our failure as a city," said Chan McNally, who is also co-campaign manager for mayoral candidate Gil Penalosa.
McNally said security guards will put people who are already dealing with the stress of homelessness under further pressure. This plan will also push people further out into different parts of the city, away from supports.
"They're driven further out, into ravines, for example, in Scarborough, or in some cases up into midtown," she said.
"We don't actually reduce homelessness, we just drive it far underground, and these people have nowhere to go."