Nearly $2 million spent on clearing encampments should have gone to housing, advocates say

·4 min read
Toronto police arrest a person protesting the clearing of an encampment at Lamport Stadium on July 21, 2021.  (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Toronto police arrest a person protesting the clearing of an encampment at Lamport Stadium on July 21, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

Toronto spent nearly $2 million to clear encampments in three city parks this summer and homeless advocates say the amount doesn't include the hidden cost of displacing and scattering vulnerable people during a pandemic.

Advocates said the city should have spent the money on permanent housing and supports for unhoused people, which would have been a more compassionate approach to homelessness in Toronto. They added the total costs are likely much higher than the city has reported.

The city released the final costs of its violent evictions on Friday in a news release, saying the money was spent to enforce notices under Ontario's Trepass to Property Act, provide security, carry out landscaping and erect fencing in Trinity Bellwoods, Alexandra and Lamport Stadium parks.

Trepass enforcement cost a total of $840,127, while landscaping and remediation of park grounds for public use cost $792,668 and fencing cost $357,000. Police, including some on horseback, pushed dozens of people out of the parks mainly in June and July. Several people, including encampment supporters, were injured in clashes with police and several others were arrested and charged.

Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor with Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, said on Saturday that it is important to note the city is trying to make poverty invisible and has used taxpayers' money to push homelessness out of the public eye. In the process, it has traumatized people who were living in tents and had formed communities.

"That kind of enforcement is violent, immoral and completely out of bounds to begin with," Hatlem said.

"Fencing people in, using police with batons and horses, that's the first thing that's wrong with it. But the fact that it cost $2 million to remove 60 people, and that comes from the city's own numbers, is just beyond the beyond in terms of obnoxiousness. People could have been housed for years with that much money."

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

According to the city, the costs associated with the enforcement of trespass notices at the parks include: labour costs for city and private security staff, Toronto police, firefighters and paramedic staff; fleet costs for Transportation Services equipment; solid waste management costs for removal of debris; and such costs as buses and personal protective equipment.

The city maintains that encampments are unsafe, unhealthy and illegal.

Hatlem said the final tally doesn't include court costs, including the cost of processing people through the criminal justice system after they were arrested and charged and the cost of lawsuits that are expected given that people were injured in clashes with police.

Of the unhoused people pushed out of parks, one or two managed to obtain permanent housing, while 10 to 15 went inside, he said. "The vast majority, 75 to 80 per cent or more, are in other parks. Now they trust the system less. Now they are dealing with more trauma, which may mean more cost to the health care system," he said.

'It's a colossal waste,' advocate says of money

Rafi Aaron, spokesperson for the Interfaith Coalition to Fight Homelessness, agreed with Hatlem, saying the $2 million is not a surprise, given that the operation was "oversized." He said the costs are expected to be much higher when a line by line analysis is made available.

"It's a colossal waste," Aaron said. "That money could have gone to house people."

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

Aaron questioned the plan espoused by Mayor John Tory to clear encampments, saying the money achieved a negative result. "It's not just that you didn't house people. You have caused another layer of trauma onto their lives. You've uprooted people from their support networks and social networks. It's extremely difficult to help people now because we need to locate them first. This has really impacted people's lives in a negative way," he said.

"We're really finding that people are in a terrible physical, emotional and mental state having had to endure this violence for no apparent reason. We are finding people in various states of distress. There is really nowhere for them to go."

City says sharing costs is attempt to be transparent

City spokesperson Brad Ross, however, defended the expenditure of money. He said the encampments limited public use and access to the parks. In Alexandra Park, for example, the encampment occupied a large part of the park, he said.

"You can't force people to come inside, but you cannot camp in parks, it's illegal and as we know unsafe," Ross said on Friday.

As for the clearing of encampments, Ross said: "There are a number of costs with activity like this and the City of Toronto is sharing those today to be transparent, to be accountable about what these kinds of operations do, in fact, cost the City of Toronto."

The city cleared encampments in Trinity Bellwoods Park on June 22 and in Alexandra Park on July 20. It cleared part of the encampment in Lamport Stadium park on May 19 then went back to clear it fully on July 21.

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