defending homeless encampments
By Jennifer Stone (Executive Director) & Brendan Jowett (Staff Housing Lawyer)
On May 15, 2020, we joined community members along Lakeshore Blvd. W., between Spadina and Bay St., where the City of Toronto had given residents notice that they intended to clear tents and belongings of homeless people camped under the Gardiner Expressway. It was rainy and cold.
The eviction notice originally said that the clearance would take place before 8am at Spadina and Lakeshore. A bit of cat-and-mouse took place instead. A community organizer at Lakeshore & Bay Street alerted us that in fact the frontloader/garbage trucks were there at 8am and set to clear another encampment. Those who had gathered at Spadina ran to Bay. You’ve perhaps seen the dramatic image of an elementary school teacher named Ana standing between a tent and bulldozer.
We were told that the man who lived in the tent was only offered a place to live after that moment. The stand-off there lasted about 15 minutes; then the frontloader and city trucks left that site and headed west (back towards Spadina).
Everyone who had gathered (about 20 people) walked back to Spadina and Lakeshore, passing a few encampments along the way. Back at Spadina and Lakeshore, 6 police SUVs, a police officer on a horse, the frontloader/bulldozer-type vehicle, two garbage trucks, and about half-dozen City of Toronto vehicles had assembled. About a dozen police officers (wearing masks) negotiated with some of the organizers. Streets to Homes staff were there, and they told us that their understanding was just that some of the debris/garbage was to be cleared, not tents or people. This was not at all clear based on the eviction notice, which specifically mentioned camping and removal of personal items. After some time, confronted by community pressure and the optics of destroying the tents of homeless people during a pandemic, the police and the City assured everyone that only excess debris would be cleared. It was determined that it was safe for us to leave.
We later learned the City proceeded to bulldoze the encampment once community members left:
https://www.blogto.com/city/2020/05/advocates-toronto-unite-stop-city-clearing-homeless-encampments-under-gardiner/Later that day, at the City of Toronto’s daily briefing, Fire Chief Pegg said that the encampment-clearing operation was to keep people safe from fire. He did not acknowledge that the encampments are the result of an affordable housing crisis. He did not offer to work with encampment residents to improve safety. He did not mince words about his view that the community members who attended were obstructing the job of his staff. He did not follow any of the principles established by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing in how to respect the human rights of encampment residents.
We found the militarization imagery confronting and disturbing. That this is how the state responds after failing to ensure the right to housing and an adequate social safety net, and on a cold & rainy morning in the middle of the pandemic, is deeply concerning. We also observed the lack of trust between the City and those who support people sleeping rough. Frontline workers say that some people are being offered acceptable accommodations and are taking them, but others are being offered a mat in a crowded respite centre and are choosing to stay where they are. One can't blame them.
Fire Chief Pegg’s admonition to community members later in the day twisted the narrative. No doubt there are fire safety concerns, and also no doubt the City knows that courts will find the fire safety narrative very compelling. But with over 300 cases of COVID-19 in the shelter system, and the deaths of homeless residents of shelters due to Covid, it is deeply troubling to force people from encampments into crowded shelters. People are making the difficult decision to sleep outdoors for a reason.
Rather than working with encampment residents to improve safety and provide support and necessities of life, the City continues to threaten and carry out encampment evictions. For decades, all levels of government have failed to provide adequate, affordable housing in Toronto, and instead they have handed the City over to rich developers and multi-billion dollar financialized landlords (such as Real Estate Investment Trusts) who exploit Ontario’s weak rent controls and increasing demand for housing. The City has claimed to take a “human rights approach” to housing, but has refused to declare homelessness an emergency and is not following the human rights protocols established by the UN.
There must be no encampment evictions for the duration of the pandemic. There must be no encampment evictions so long as Toronto leaves homeless people with no other real choice.
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