Toronto relies on 'outdated,' inconsistent protocol for responding to encampments: Ombudsman

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Police officers on horses are seen as occupants and supporters of an encampment in Trinity Bellwoods Park are evicted in June, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Police officers on horses are seen as occupants and supporters of an encampment in Trinity Bellwoods Park are evicted in June, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

City of Toronto staff rely on an outdated and inconsistent approach when it comes to dealing with unhoused people in public parks, according to an investigation into the city's controversial clearing of encampments last year.

Toronto Ombudsman Kwame Addo released an interim report on Thursday that found a key protocol intended to guide staff in their interactions and treatment of people living in encampments has not been formally updated since 2005.

Addo similarly found that the city's Encampment Office, created in the summer of 2020, is under-resourced and lacks a focused mandate.

"Clearing encampments is extremely disruptive and in some cases traumatizing to the people living in them. The city owes a particularly high duty of fairness to those residents, who are among the most vulnerable in Toronto," the report said.

"The city's response to encampments, including its enforcement action, must be done in a consistent and coordinated way, following a process that is well-established, transparent, and understood by all — city staff and encampment residents alike."

The report ultimately includes eight recommendations to help the city develop a "clearer, transparent, and consistent" way to deal with encampments. The city said as of July 13 there are 121 known encampments.

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

The Ombudsman's office began its investigation in September 2021, after fielding more than 50 complaints from the public about how encampments in Trinity Bellwoods ParkLamport Stadium Park, and Alexandra Park were cleared earlier that summer.

The high-profile incidents included violent standoffs between Toronto police and encampment supporters who tried to stop city staff from evicting those living in the parks. Dozens of people were arrested as the city moved in.

The scenes drew widespread condemnation from some members of the public and advocacy groups.

"We heard broad concerns that the city's treatment of people living in encampments had eroded the public's trust in their municipal government, and we saw evidence that the city's actions have hurt its work with community organizations on other important city initiatives," Addo said in the report.

"Community groups told us that the clearings have increased the vulnerability, isolation, and trauma of people who have lived in encampments."

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

The partial report also notes that investigators heard from members of the public who supported the city's actions and also expressed concerns about their ability to use public parks where encampments had formed.

Larger report in the works

Thursday's interim report has a narrow focus on several elements of how the city approaches those living in encampments. Addo said a wider report will be tabled to city council as soon as possible, but that he felt it was important to provide an update on the sweeping investigation as the city continues to clear encampments in other parks.

One of the key parts of the interim report is a document called the Interdepartmental Service Protocol for Homeless People Camping in Public Spaces, or IDP. The IDP was first adopted in 2005 and is described as a "primary document outlining [the city's] approach to responding to encampments."

In its investigation, the Ombudsman's office found that the IDP is "outdated and not consistently followed by city staff.

"Although the city knew that the IDP needed to be updated, it does not have a detailed plan or timeline to guide this work. We believe this is unreasonable," the report said.

It added that all of the city workers who spoke to investigators agreed that the IDP needs to be revised to "reflect the current social and human rights issues associated with responding to encampments."

A common theme in conversations with city staff was how complex it is to effectively and humanely deal with vulnerable people living in encampments, the report noted. The effort requires co-ordination across many city departments. To that point, the 37 city staffers who did interviews with the Ombudsman's office came from 10 different divisions.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press
Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Investigators also heard from city staff that the Encampment Office, which ostensibly exists to play a central, coordinating role on the file, lacks clearly defined responsibilities and is chronically understaffed.

The eight recommendations in the report include the city should develop a detailed plan outlining how and when it will update its encampment response protocol, hold consultations with the public to inform that update and clearly outline the role and mandate of the Encampment Office.

According to Addo, the city has agreed to implement all of the recommendations, though a firm timeline has not been established.

The city confirmed that in a news release Thursday morning. It said the City of Toronto: "remains committed to strengthening its housing first approach to street and encampment outreach and providing wrap-around, client-centred case management supports to people living outdoors, constructively and in a non-confrontational way."

While the role of Toronto police in last year's clearings was a central point of concern for many, Addo noted in the report that it is outside his office's authority to review the force's actions.

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