moss park toronto

Large encampment in Moss Park highlights urgent need for more housing in Toronto

Though the numbers haven’t officially been released, Diana McNally, training and engagement coordinator at Toronto Drop-In Network, estimates there are currently between 1,500 to 2,500 people sleeping in encampments across the city. 

“Given that there are no indoor spaces besides drop-ins that people can access, it makes sense that they’re just trying to stay safe and take care of themselves by grouping together in these encampments,” said McNally.

“It's really not ideal and people know that but it's really the only viable option at this moment.” 

More and more have been moving into tents after the shelter system quickly became a vector for the deadly virus. McNally says 600 confirmed cases over the last three months out of about 6,000 shelter residents means 10 per cent of the population has gotten COVID-19. 

“That’s physically not a safe option for anybody,” said McNally. 

Laura Spagora, who has lived in the Moss Park neighbourhood for four years now, has been checking in on the conditions at the ever-growing encampment, which does not have a source of clean running water. 

“There was so much garbage and for the whole park, they only had one sink that was broken within hours of being put in and two porta-potties that weren't being serviced at all. I physically went and checked, like opened the door day after day,” she said. 

When people first starting pitching their tents, Spagora says she would regularly walk over to the park to give out bottled water and talk with the people there. 

But since the number of occupants has multiplied, she says the conditions have aggravated to the point that her senior neighbours haven’t left their property for the past eight weeks. 

“There are people walking by trying to avoid the park on the sidewalk and people are literally running out of the park trying to extort people walking by saying, ‘Give me $10 or I'm gonna spit in your face,’" she said. “When it's becoming a public safety issue someone needs to intervene and no one is.” 

Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam has been trying for the past three years to get City Council and Mayor Tory to declare a shelter and homelessness crisis in Toronto. 

“I firmly believe that if City Council took more action, and sooner, we would be in a stronger position to support those without adequate housing during this pandemic,” she said. “The proliferation of encampments is a direct result of the failure of the government to take the housing crisis seriously.” 

A moratorium on clearing these homeless encampments was lifted last month and Wong-Tam says Moss Park has been identified as one of the several priority sites for rapid rehousing.

She has been informed by city staff that they’re no longer offering shelter beds but only hotels or apartments with enhanced support such as 24-hour security, meals, room cleaning and medical assistance. 

“City staff have confirmed that no encampment sites are cleared without prior offers of safe and adequate indoor accommodations, whether they be hotel rooms or interim housing,” Wong-Tam said. “This is why moving people from encampments into indoor spaces has taken so long.” 

City staff members are currently working to secure and add new sites to the 31 that have already been opened and filled since the beginning of the lockdown. 

But McNally says moving encampment occupants into temporary housing can be traumatic. 

“In terms of safety, I still think that [encampments] are the safest option barring putting people into permanent housing,” she said. “There are offers of temporary housing and hotels but it can be wildly damaging to put someone into a temporary space just to evict them three or four months down the line.” 

And helping those experiencing homelessness find permanent, affordable housing, is something McNally says the City has not done well.

“[The Rapid Access to Housing Initiative] only really placed 213 people and of those, 82 are in units that are going to be demolished. So when we talk about permanent housing basically they housed 131 people maximum.” 

The Modular Housing Initiative, which will provide supportive housing units to those without a home, will hopefully provide more of a long-term solution. 

“We're starting to establish these kinds of measures but the need is immediate, you can see it. Walk down to Moss Park, there's no time to wait," said McNally. "It's just really unfortunate that we're seeing such slow movement.” 

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