Community group calls on city council to impose moratorium on evictions of unhoused people

Susan Bender, a member of Voices for Unhoused Liberation, a community group, says: 'Sign the letter if you haven't signed the letter. Call the mayor. Tell them that you support a moratorium and that you want a transformed system that respects the dignity of every person living in this city and upholds their human right to housing.' (CBC - image credit)

A community group is calling on Toronto city council to pass a motion that would impose a moratorium on all evictions of unhoused people this winter.

Voices for Unhoused Liberation is demanding that council vote in favour of a moratorium at its meeting next week.

In an open letter, signed by more than 500 people, the group says it wants to stop evictions of unhoused people in encampments, homeless shelters and hotel programs to reduce the number of people being made homeless in Toronto.

The letter, addressed to Mayor Olivia Chow, also calls for investment in additional indoor spaces with beds and meals and for the city to meet with grassroots groups of unhoused people to find a new way to respond to homelessness in the city.

Educators, health care providers, students, artists, community residents, among others, have signed the letter.

"Members of Toronto's unhoused community live under constant threat of eviction, whether they're sleeping in a congregate shelter, a hotel program, or an encampment. They are being evicted from their rooms, beds, and tents every day," the letter reads.

It goes on to say unhoused people lose belongings and jobs, suffer harm to their physical and mental health and are criminalized when they are evicted from encampments and shelters. It alleges that they also endure violence from police.

The letter takes issue with what is known as "service restrictions" at homeless shelters.

According to the city, service restrictions are applied to individuals in shelters after incidents involving violence or the threat of violence, behaviour that causes danger to others, violation of significant shelter rules and a shelter resident's continual refusal to participate in a service plan. That would formally restrict a person's "access to shelter services for a limited length of time, which means they are evicted from a shelter temporarily.

Susan Bender, a member of Voices for Unhoused Liberation, said that a moratorium on evictions is needed because the weather is going to get damper and colder.

"Sign the letter if you haven't signed the letter. Call the mayor. Tell them that you support a moratorium and that you want a transformed system that respects the dignity of every person living in this city and upholds their human right to housing," Bender said at a news conference Tuesday.

An encampment outside Saint-Stephen-in-the-Fields Anglican church in Toronto was cleared by the city on Nov. 24. (Spencer Gallichan-Lowe/CBC)

The letter comes nearly two weeks after the city moved several people from an encampment outside Saint-Stephen-in-the Fields Anglican Church near College and Bathurst streets. City crews used heavy equipment to clear tents from the area.

At the time, the mayor said the encampment was unsafe and had to be cleared because there had been three fires. Outreach workers offered space in hotel shelters to encampment residents.

Chow has previously said that no one will be moved from encampments without being offered an alternative. Last week, she said the city will have $200 million per year to fund shelters as part of Toronto's new financial deal with the province.

"No one has been forced to be moved to date under my watch," Chow said at city hall.

Chow said city staff, in a voluntary way, are inviting people to come indoors.

Rev. Canon Maggie Helwig, of Saint-Stephen-In-The-Fields, said the church supported an encampment in its yard for about two years, but now the yard is surrounded by an eight-foot high security fence and blocked off by concrete blocks.

"This was the last safe place that people could come. And we held it for as long as we could as the last safe place," she said. "You can see what it is now."

She said the encampment was a place of "supportive community" and some people are still living on the north half of the yard.

Dredz Green 1
Dredz Green 1

Dredz Green, an organizer with Voices for Unhoused Liberation, is pushing for 'diversified solutions' to shelter people experiencing homelessness. 'You don't just clear them out and tell them to go somewhere,' he said. (CBC)

Dredz Green, an organizer with Voices for Unhoused Liberation who has lived in encampments and shelter hotels, said he has experienced many forms of displacement.

"Let's get diversified in getting solutions that include the people to get them where they need to be. Include them in it," he said. "You don't just clear them out and tell them to go somewhere."

Green said when unhoused people are evicted, they are not treated with dignity and given information about what is happening.

"We've had people asking for their own paperwork as to why am I being kicked out and where am I going to get a safe place to go? And even just asking those questions, you're being escorted out by four, five, six police," Green said.

"They're picking you up limb by limb like you've done something destructive in the environment when all you're asking is, okay, you're relocating me, where am I going? I refuse to leave because you're not telling me."

In a statement on Wednesday, the city's Shelter Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) said the city is committed to ensuring that everyone staying and working in the shelter system is safe from violence.

"Shelter service delivery is based on accepting and respecting the inherent dignity, diversity, experiences and abilities of all individuals. Clients staying in a shelter are expected to follow Rights and Responsibilities, as outlined in the Toronto Shelter Standards and 24-Hour Respite Site Standards," SSHA said.

"Violent, abusive or harassing behaviour is not tolerated, and clients may be subject to service restrictions for violating shelter rules and/or acting in a manner that threatens the health and safety of residents and staff."

During extreme weather, SSHA said it follows Toronto Shelter Standards, which directs shelter providers to suspend temporarily all service restrictions, except when a shelter resident facing a service restriction "poses an immediate threat or danger to another individual's health or safety, or the security of the shelter.

"The City continues to engage frontline staff, service providers, sector partners and people with lived experience of homelessness in evaluating many aspects of the delivery of homelessness services," it added.

According to city data, a total of 9,465 people used its shelter system on Monday night, while an average of 291 people were turned away from shelters nightly in October. The city says the number of people actively homeless in Toronto in the last three months was 10,111.