People in Toronto say new plan to shelter homeless is a PR stunt to evict encampment residents
The City of Toronto announced a new program this week that aims to move all residents from four "priority" encampments into hotel shelters by April, but homelessness advocates say the initiative isn't what it seems.
The program, titled "Pathway Inside," focuses on those living at four sites the city says are subject to increased health and safety concerns: Moss Park, Alexandra Park, Trinity Bellwoods and Lamport Stadium.
But advocates say the initiative is a PR stunt meant to disguise the fact that "Pathway Inside" is really an eviction notice to all of those living in the city's most prominent encampments.
"It seems as though the city has just repackaged its ongoing efforts to displace, criminalize, and invisibilize people living in the four most visible encampments in Toronto," Charlotte Smith, an outreach volunteer with Toronto's Encampment Support Network, told blogTO.
"Since May of last year ESN has witnessed this process of clearing encampments. First they posted notices of eviction, then they changed the language of eviction to 'clearing', then to 'cleaning' and now it is an official city 'program,' but the processes are effectively the same, and they have the same goal, which is to displace people out of sight."
One big change since we started last May is that the City of Toronto needs to cloak their eviction notices as an act of care or "city program". This is because the solidarity of the public with encampment residents has been overwhelming. Keep it up. https://t.co/MhtBN8VdqX— Encampment Support Network Toronto (@ESN_TO) March 18, 2021
Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Toronto, told blogTO she too was immediately unimpressed by the city's announcement.
"They have acknowledged that they only have space for four of the encampments and not for everyone," Lam said. "This is clearly about optics and visibility and not actually the wellness of homeless people."
Lam said she's tried to refer multiple people experiencing homelessness who don't live in one of these encampments to the shelter hotels, including a sick, elderly person who rides the TTC at night to stay warm, but they haven't been able to get in.
"If they were concerned about the wellbeing of homeless people, they'd actually make the space available to all," she said.
The city has been trying to rid public spaces of encampments for many years, but these efforts increased substantially as the situation worsened with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and as more people chose to live outside rather than subject themselves to outbreaks and what have been described as sub-par conditions in the shelter system.
Citing fire risks and the fact that camping in parks is illegal, the city maintains that encampments are not safe, but Lam said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S. states that dismantling encampments is bad for public health and COVID-19.
A 250% in encampment fires in 2020 over 2019 across the city. The risk to life is increased in encampments with larger numbers of people. Hotel programs are situated in buildings with fire plans and life safety infrastructure.— Brad Ross (@bradrossTO) March 16, 2021
The harm reduction programs also help save lives.
And yet, the clearing of these sites has continued, and according to Smith, who has been on site when some of these encampments have been cleared, city staff often show up with police to offer hotel shelter or respite spaces before dismantling them.
If people do not accept the offer, they said, the threat of police and by-law enforcement is imminent, and staff often fence off the areas so that people can't return once they leave — as they did at Ireland Park, George Hislop and parts of Moss Park.
"This is re-traumatizing and deeply violent to the community," Lam said of this practice. "Clearing encampments is a colonial process. They send police to the clearings to threaten arrest if people don't want to move out of parks."
Following the city's announcement of the program on Tuesday, signs were put up in the four parks to advise residents of the services available to them and to warn that encampments will be cleared next month.
"In early April, people will not be allowed to stay overnight and these encampment sites will undergo a parkland restoration process," reads the notice.
Asked why they think these four parks specifically are being targeted for eviction, Smith said they believe it's because of their visibility and placement within the city.
Why are they priorities, Mr. Perks? https://t.co/Mpa4CfTWPM— Encampment Support Network Toronto (@ESN_TO) March 17, 2021
"Because the four targeted encampments are so visible, there is a perceived impact on property value," they said.
"The city says they want housed people to 'have their parks back,' but it's important to recognize that in Toronto, 'public greenspace' is actually an asset to property developers. The idea that 'the public' cannot use the parks where there are encampments is ridiculous."
The city also indicated in its announcement this week that the Pathway Inside team has been engaging with people living in encampments daily to better understand their needs when it comes to providing safe indoor space.
"There are many varied and complex reasons why someone may live outside," reads the announcement.
"Through ongoing engagement, the City heard that people need programs close to their existing supports, with inside space not just for single occupancy but also for couples. They also need on-site harm reduction. Pathway Inside addresses these needs."
But Smith said that in reality, just three city workers went to the four encampments and paid an average of three encampment residents at each place to talk about their lives.
"They heard people talk about how they wanted to stay in their communities and how people want safe, dignified, and affordable permanent housing — not institutionalization and surveillance," Smith said.
"They are using this so-called consultation process to say they have consulted with encampment residents — but as far as we can see, there's nothing new being offered to encampment residents."
Smith added that while the city says these encampments are "subject to increased health and safety concerns," advocates hear daily stories about the dangers people face in shelter hotels.
"We all know many people who have died from preventable overdoses at shelter hotels, and one person has died in a fire at the Victoria," they said.
We have been saying the same thing since the start: people have a right to live in their communities, close to their services and families Most people want permanent, dignified, housing, not institutionalization. The city knows that. This new "program" is just an eviction.— Encampment Support Network Toronto (@ESN_TO) March 16, 2021
"The shelter and shelter hotel systems are not suitable or safe for many people, for many reasons: COVID outbreaks, inadequate or non-existent overdose prevention strategies, and their location which often displaces people from their communities, services, their jobs, their friends and families," Smith said.
Lam, meanwhile, said removing these encampments does little to address the root of the issue, which is simply and plainly a lack of supportive and affordable permanent housing.
"Clearing these encampments will just mean that people will move elsewhere," she said. "It doesn't actually resolve the issue at hand, which is there is no housing. The city needs to take responsibility for the lack of affordable housing, instead of continuing to deflect responsibility and putting focus and resources on clearing encampments."
Brad Ross, chief communications officer for the City of Toronto, wrote on Twitter this week that one of the key supports in these hotels "is working with folks to develop a housing plan," however, but Lam said that doesn't change the fact that the supply of affordable housing is grossly insufficient.
One of the key supports, beyond a warm room and meals, is working with folks to develop a housing plan. Shelters, of course, are not a permanent solution - housing is. This is very much a positive focus on helping people find housing... supportive, affordable, permanent.— Brad Ross (@bradrossTO) March 16, 2021
Instead of clearing encampments and moving people to shelter hotels, Smith said the city should be expropriating unused buildings in the communities in which people want to live for affordable, rent-geared-to-income housing.
"The city should be working with people, and engaging in meaningful consultation so that they can meet people's needs instead of seeking to invisiblize encampments and break up communities," Smith said.
"These shelter hotel programs are temporary and so the question is what happens after? We know that many people choose to leave, and I've met people who have been kicked out for all kinds of reasons, oftentimes back onto the street," they continued.
"No one I know who has gone to a shelter hotel program been offered permanent housing. So the city is putting resources into band-aid solutions that just displace and institutionalize people."
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