Housing activists say a program announced by the city of Toronto to provide 250 hotel spaces for residents in four “priority” encampment locations disguises the threat of eventual eviction.
The city announced through its Pathway Inside Program on March 16 that it has secured spaces for all residents currently living in encampment sites at Moss Park, Alexandra Park, Trinity Bellwoods and Lamport Stadium at a shelter hotel located at 45 The Esplanade, and other hotels.
Encampment residents who accept shelter hotel spots will move over the next two weeks.
“The Pathway Inside team has engaged daily with people living outside, listening to, and understanding their needs,” city officials wrote in a news release.
But members of the Encampment Support Network Toronto (ESN) argue the announcement is “a rebrand of the city’s ongoing efforts to clear the four biggest encampments in Toronto” and “invisibilize” homelessness. They say the initiative fails to address the long-term permanent housing needs of encampment residents.
In an email statement to NOW, a city spokesperson confirms that residents who choose not to take the city up on its offer to move into a shelter hotel will be “asked to vacate the parks in April.” The spokesperson adds that the four encampments were chosen because of increased health and safety concerns.
“There are numerous safety risks that exist in encampments including fires, gasoline generators, propane tanks, overdose, and lack of access to water and sanitation.”
Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor with Sanctuary Toronto, says “pairing [the program] with the forcible threat of eviction” suggests the latest effort is “a pathway to being invisible.”
He notes that the four encampments included in the program are the most visible in Toronto and the ones the city is likely getting the most complaints about.
The city says it met with around 100 people from encampments in mid-February through mid-March to ask about their needs through a mixture of on-site surveys and interviews.
Simone Schmidt, a member of ESN, tells NOW that the city conducted one day of on-site consultations in which they paid residents $50 each to speak with them. She says they followed up with surveys they paid residents $10 to fill out.
Schmidt notes that while it’s important to consult with encampment residents on issues affecting them, those consultations should be based in meaningful relationship-building between the city and residents that would give the city a better sense of what they need, instead of a one-time conversation.
She notes that the city released the news about its latest program shortly after it concluded its survey, and she questions “how meaningful” they might have been in shaping the program.
Neither the city nor ESN could confirm how many residents are expected to accept hotel spaces.
But since the start of the pandemic, the growing number of encampments throughout the city has been a contentious issue for City Hall.
A coalition of housing activists took the city to court in October over the bylaw that prevents people from staying in parks overnight. An Ontario Superior Court ruling allowed the city to continue to clear encampments, despite emphasizing that the city is not being “encouraged” to remove residents from parks.
Although some advocates and encampment residents have argued that, for some, living in parks is safer than shelter hotels and provides residents with more agency and freedom, city officials continue to push for their removal. Johnson Hatlem and the ESN emphasize that what encampment residents have largely been asking for is permanent housing.
That’s what happened in 2003 when Tent City, one of Toronto’s first major encampments, was cleared. Johnson Hatlem says many of those residents are still living in that housing today.
“For the most part, people want dignified, permanent housing in their communities of choice, close to their jobs, services and families. The city knows this, but instead has offered temporary shelter in a large institutional setting,” the ESN says.
ESN says the city should also be investing in rent-geared-to-income housing for residents, suggesting that city-owned property all over the city could be converted into housing for residents.
“When you’re out in an encampment and you see these empty buildings, and the cranes in the sky, and people relegated to living outside, it’s all senseless.”