The city of Toronto has paused its plans to clear encampments in parks next week following a COVID-19 outbreak at a shelter hotel where the city had been offering space to unhoused people.
Toronto Public Health says the city cannot make any referrals "at this time" to the shelter hotel at 45 The Esplanade because of the outbreak.
In a news release on Thursday, the city said it will not enforce its bylaws in parks on Tuesday, April 6, as it had threatened to do. It maintains, however, that encampments are unsafe.
"No enforcement action to vacate parks will occur on April 6 while the City continues to focus its efforts on offering the necessary means to keep people safe and support voluntary referrals into indoor space, including other hotel programs across the city that continue to accept referrals, as well as permanent housing options that become available," the city said in the release.
On March 19, the city posted notices under Ontario's Trespass to Property Act on tents, light poles, trees and wooden structures in parks across Toronto, saying encampment residents must remove their temporary homes from city property by April 6. The notices said activities such as camping, setting up tents and structures, lighting fires and gathering overnight, are not allowed in city parks.
In its release, however, the city now says April 6 is only a guide, not a deadline for unhoused people to dismantle their tents and wooden structures.
"The notice posted in parks in March identified a date of April 6 to guide peoples' decision making regarding offers of shelter, housing and other supports being offered. The City is continuing to make these offers and speak with residents in encampments."
Four people staying at 45 The Esplanade, formerly known as the Novotel Toronto Centre, have tested positive for the virus. The shelter hotel is part of the city's Pathway Inside program that offers indoor space to people in the city's four largest encampments: Alexandra Park, Trinity Bellwoods Park, Moss Park and Lamport Stadium. It was launched on March 16.
16 Toronto shelters now in outbreak
The outbreak declared by Toronto Public Health is one of 16 at city shelters. The city is reporting 337 positive cases of COVID-19 among staff and clients linked to these shelter outbreaks.
Susan Gibson, an encampment resident who has been living in a tent at Trinity Bellwoods Park since last summer, said she is not convinced she would be safe in a shelter. She said she is living outside because she could not afford her rent.
"I'm so relieved. I didn't know what I was going to do," Gibson said.
"I have compromised immunity. And I'm hearing about the COVID outbreaks in the shelters and the hotel shelters. I didn't want to be forced into the shelter system."
According to the city, the cases at the shelter hotel are not linked to transmission at the hotel and three out of the four people who tested positive had the virus before they moved inside. All four have been transferred to a recovery site.
"The individuals were immediately transferred to a recovery site and testing of all residents in the program is occurring," the city said in the release.
Residents received a flyer, slipped under their doors, that says mass testing will happen on Friday, April 9 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
More than 60 people from the four largest encampments have moved into the shelter hotel as part of the Pathway Inside program, the city said. The shelter hotel includes a private and secure room, bathroom, laundry and three meals a day.
"Encampments are not an indefinite solution to unsheltered homelessness and the health outcomes for people who stay outside are complex and serious. Individuals living outdoors are also at risk of contracting COVID-19," the city added.
Doctor says city needs to focus on 'keeping people alive'
Dr. Andrew Boozary, executive director of social medicine at the University Health Network, said the plan to clear encampments was misguided.
"We are in a deadly pandemic. The focus cannot be about evicting people who are living outside," Boozary said.
"Right now, our collective focus has to be on keeping people alive, doing all that we can on the options that are there to ensure people can be physically distant and isolate."
The pause in plans to clear encampments also comes after a group of lawyers had threatened "prolonged court battles" over the move, saying such evictions would violate the rights of unhoused people living in parks during the pandemic.
According to the lawyers, clearing encampments, forced evictions and forcing people into what they call unsafe shelters violates the Ontario Human Rights Code, international human rights law and sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Because some encampment residents are Indigenous people, the city would also be violating its treaty obligations, the lawyers said.
Mayor says he believes program to lead to housing
Mayor John Tory, for his part, said at a city hall briefing last Wednesday that he believes the Pathway Inside program is a pathway to housing for encampment residents and he defended the initial plans.
"What we have done in this case is to put together very carefully and very thoughtfully a plan to move people who are in encampments in public parks to better housing, to permanent housing. These encampments are not safe, they are not healthy and they do not belong in public parks," Tory told reporters.