Lawyers say Toronto's plan to clear homeless encampments from parks next week is illegal
A coalition of Toronto lawyers has informed city officials that their plan to evict encampment residents from parks in one week's time is illegal — and they say they intend to take swift legal action if the city doesn't back down.
The City of Toronto announced a brand new program earlier this month that aims to move all residents from four "priority" encampments into hotel shelters by April, citing fire issues and the fact that camping in parks is techically illegal.
But the program, called Pathway Inside, was widely criticized by advocates who said it was merely a repackaging of the city's ongoing efforts to displace and criminalize those experiencing homelessness, especially amid COVID-19 outbreaks in shelters and a lack of supportive housing supply.
This belief was only reinforced when city staff posted notices declaring their intentions to evict people from parks throughout the city — not just at the four largest encampments — and threatening to charge all residents with trespassing if they don't comply as of April 6.
Do you want to live in a Toronto where unhoused people are chased around and criminalized by private security and police just for being unhoused?— Encampment Support Network Toronto (@ESN_TO) March 28, 2021
If NO, push back against the Notices of Trespasses issued to encampments.
Use our toolkit.https://t.co/m3gY4OgIHZ pic.twitter.com/v6yuHV3Onl
Now, with just one week left until encampment residents must leave their homes, the coalition of lawyers has sent a letter to Mayor John Tory and city councillors to alert them that the plan is illegal and will not be tolerated.
Lawyers with the Black Legal Action Centre, Community Justice Collective, Neighborhood Legal Services, Osgoode Hall Law School's Environmental Justice and Sustainability Clinic, The 519, and Downtown Legal Services at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law issued the letter Wednesday.
The gropup says that Toronto's planned actions undermine encampment residents' rights, and that they violate the Ontario Human Rights Code, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the city's Treaty obligations.
"Lawyers, encampment residents, and their supporters stand ready to fight in Tribunals and in Courts any illegal actions that police officers, bylaw officers, City security guards or other City employees carry out," reads a press release from the coalition.
Today lawyers from CJC, @The519 @nlstoronto @downtownlegal @BLAC_Ontario @OzEJS sent this letter to the Mayor + Councillors outlining why forced encampment evictions are illegal. Ppl across TO are organized and ready to defend encampment residents' rights.https://t.co/vYoaj59ngZ— Community Justice Collective (@cjc_TO) March 31, 2021
The lawyers say the city's Pathway Inside program violates the law in five different ways, including by discriminating against people with disabilites.
"Many shelters discriminate against people who have disabilities, and particularly people rely on substances like drugs and alcohol. Some shelters kick people out for using substances, and prohibit guests, even though it is a recognized harm reduction strategy to use substances in the presence of others," say the lawyers.
"Toronto's shelters had their deadliest year in history in 2020, with many deaths from overdose and drug poisoning. Forcing people to enter discriminatory shelters, or face criminal charges, violates the Ontario Human Rights Code and Equality Rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."
The lawyers also say that, by greenlighting police and bylaw officers to charge encampment residents with trespassing charges, the city is approving the over-criminalization of Black and Indigenous people in Toronto, as these groups are disproportionately represented within the homeless population.
The city reported in 2018 that more than one third of unhoused people in the city are Indigenous, and the lawyers say evictions of Indigenous encampment residents also violate their Treaty Rights, Charter Rights and the Ontario Human Rights Code.
"Forcing people into unsafe shelters, or displacing them for refusing unsuitable spaces may violate residents' rights under Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms," says the coalition, adding that over 1,200 people have contracted COVID-19 in shelters to date.
"Especially considering there are currently 14 active outbreaks in shelters, a shortage of Shelter spaces, and many shelters cannot accommodate people's needs."
the City’s “pathways inside” program forces those in parks to move into shelters that are in massive covid outbreaks. pic.twitter.com/i7fSeQ25KN— Lorraine Lam (@lorrainelamchop) March 31, 2021
Finally, the lawyers say encampment evictions violate international human rights, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which includes protection from forced evictions.
"We stress that your current strategy will lead to prolonged court battles," reads the legal letter.
"Lawyers, along with others across the city, are organized and ready to defend encampment residents' rights to dignity, autonomy and safe housing that meets their needs. The city's actions are likely illegal, and are clearly immoral, misguided, and inhumane."
When asked about the coalition's plans to pursue legal action against the city, should it choose to enforce these evictions next Wednesday, Mayor Tory stood behind the city's efforts to shelter and house the homeless and maintained that Pathway Inside is an effective and necessary program.
"These encampments are not safe, they are not healthy and they do not belong in public parks," he said.
The city also maintains that there won't be any "confrontation" with encampment residents when April 6 arrives, but Simone Schmidt of the Encampment Support Network says "the threat of violent enforcement in the shape of these trespass notices is hanging over people's heads."
@bradrossTO stated on @metromorning this morning that there won’t be any confrontation at encampments on April 6. Since he didn’t clarify what that means we thought we’d offer some examples on what confrontation is. pic.twitter.com/eaVNUWORRB— Shelter and Housing Justice Network (@SHJNetwork) March 31, 2021
"People are forced to live outside because of this city's crisis around affordable housing," says Sima Atri, a lawyer with the Community Justice Collective and one of the letter's signatories.
"As we enter a third wave of COVID-19, it is particularly egregious that the City's response to homelessness is to threaten to arrest and charge people and strong-arm people into shelters in an attempt to invisibilize this crisis. The City must reverse course or face opposition in the parks, and in the courts."
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