City workers, with Toronto police officers on standby, cleared a small encampment in a downtown park early Sunday.
The city confirmed in an email that there were 10 structures in Clarence Square Park, near Wellington Street West and Spadina Avenue, and its workers cleared eight tents.
It said one tent and one structure remain in the park, two people accepted referrals to inside spaces and one person returned to where he or she had been staying prior to staying in the encampment.
According to the city, the eight tents were unoccupied and only four people were living in the park. However, one advocate says at least six people were living in the park.
The city said encampments are not allowed in city parks according to its parks bylaw. "Any tent or structure that encroaches on a City park or right of way for the purpose of living or occupying a space is considered an illegal encampment and subject to trespass enforcement," it said in an email.
But homeless advocates say the city's shelter system is full, people are being told there is no space in shelters on a nightly basis, and unhoused people have no place to go.
The city issued eviction notices dated June 4, giving residents 72 hours to leave the park.
According to the city, its Streets to Homes staff offered inside spaces to people living in the park. Since January, it said its staff have visited Clarence Square 152 times and has referred 17 people from the site to indoor accommodation.
Clearing violates human rights, advocate says
Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor for Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, said on Sunday that the encampment clearing is a violation of human rights.
"It's not in keeping with a strategy to get people housing as the most important thing. It's one that creates severe distrust between residents in the city and causes fear and further feeling of violence and exclusion from the city that should be for all," he said.
He said he thinks the city is determined to clear encampments from its parks this summer and it is not concerned with the safety of unhoused people.
"They want people to die in ravines of overdoses without support. They are fine with people apparently sleeping on sidewalks, freezing to death in bus shelters, burning to death in parks that are far flung. This isn't about safety," he said.
Johnson Hatlem said he was notified about the encampment clearing at about 8:40 a.m. He said two unhoused people living in tents in the park accepted offers of spaces in shelter hotels, one resident of a tiny shelter remains, and the other unhoused people living there packed up their belongings and left quickly. He said it's the first time that he knows of that the city has cleared an encampment on a Sunday morning.
"The City's response is the polar opposite of a response geared toward health, safety, reducing homelessness, and honouring the law, particularly the legislated right to housing," he said.
The city disagrees, saying it believes living in an encampment is unhealthy and its parks must be safe and accessible to all Toronto residents.
Johnson Hatlem said six police officers were in the park when the encampment was cleared.
Police says officers were there but 'not utilized'
Police directed questions about the encampment clearing to the city, saying officers were in the park but did not clear tents.
"The City is the lead on homelessness and encampments, so please speak to them about any clearings," Const. Laura Brabant, spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service (TPS), said in an email.
"Only as a last resort, and in partnership with City staff, would police officers carry out enforcement," she said. "Please note, officers were in the area of the park, but were not utilized."
The city added that it asked police to be in the area to be contacted if necessary. "When staff arrived on site, they determined that TPS were required to maintain public order," it said.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said the city will continue to try to find indoor spaces for people living outside.
"I don't, as an elected political leader, give direction to law enforcement," Tory said. "But I've made the point many times that encampments are unsafe, they're unhealthy and they're illegal. And we've made strenuous efforts in all of these different locations to find indoor housing for the people affected who are experiencing homelessness. And those efforts will continue."
ESN Parkdale, which describes itself as a "group of housed and unhoused neighbours supporting each other and fighting back," said the encampment clearing was "brutal" and "unexpected."
"The city has begun its summer of violent encampment evictions again, and this time they are doing it quickly and quietly so their brutality goes unobserved," ESN Parkdale said in a tweet.