Op-Ed: City must drop charges against encampment residents and their supporters

Only eight per cent of encampment residents have made it to permanent housing since the pandemic started and the city began clearing parks

This summer Torontonians witnessed hundreds of police officers and private security guards hired by the city march on parks to evict small groups of people living in tents and makeshift shelters at Trinity Bellwoods, Alexandra Park, and Lamport Stadium. 

As police moved in, neighbours and supporters of encampment residents showed up to help defend their homes and communities against forced eviction. In many cases, they were met with threats and violence from police and private security.

Images captured by journalists and members of the public show officers aggressively confronting encampment residents and their supporters with batons and pepper spray and media documenting the scenes threatened with removal.

Several of those involved, encampment residents and supporters are now facing criminal charges and trespass tickets with hefty fines. Toronto police announced they were seeking eight other people in connection with the July 21 eviction.

Some appeared in court late last week to face the charges. Others turned themselves in. All of them now face police demands for bail conditions that will limit their ability to assemble, “breach the peace,” or be present during future encampment evictions by the city.

When supporters of these individuals gathered outside Mayor John Tory’s apartment building recently to demand the charges be dropped, the police arrested three more people, again requiring that they agree to strict conditions prior to their release.

The city insists that the enforcement measures are for the safety of encampment residents. But they have done little to help solve the crisis of homelessness.

Here is what we know: Only eight per cent of encampment residents have made it into permanent housing since April 2020, and a significant number return to live in encampments after entering shelters or shelter hotels. Some of those evicted report they have never been offered housing at all. And these evictions cost a lot of money.

On September 17 the City revealed it spent almost $2 million on clearing three encampments this summer. This amounts to approximately $33,000 per person evicted. As reported by the Toronto Drop-In Network, this is enough to house each encampment resident evicted at the sites in a bachelor apartment at market rent for two years.

Indeed, Toronto city councillors Josh Matlow and Mike Layton are calling on council to ask a judge to hold a public inquiry into the city’s role in the encampment clearings in the midst of a pandemic and during an escalating housing crisis.

Encampment evictions are a distraction from the real issue. The City is not living up to its own commitment to recognize housing as a human right.

Toronto’s Housing Charter and HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan commits the City to an approach that “begins and ends with human rights.” The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing has expressly articulated that forced evictions of encampments constitute gross human rights violations. Canadian courts have repeatedly limited governments’ ability to remove encampments where it violates residents’ Charter rights.

With more than one-third of encampment residents identifying as Indigenous, constitutionally protected Indigenous rights are also violated by these evictions and the criminalization of unhoused people.

Encampments lay bare the city’s and society’s failure to realize the human right to adequate housing. Encampment residents must be recognized as rights holders to whom the City has legal obligations.

But instead of engaging with residents, the City has largely approached the encampments as a property rights problem. They are the “owner” of the parks and encampment residents and their allies are “trespassers” with no right to be in these public spaces.

Is the City we want one that meets poverty with forced eviction and trespass notices, batons, fines and criminal charges?

While there is intense division on the issue of encampments, criminalizing people living in encampments and those supporting them will not solve homelessness. Encampment evictions don’t build affordable housing. Encampment evictions don’t make shelters safer. Encampment evictions don’t create more beds in shelters that are full. The goal must be building a city with housing for all.

Kaitlin Schwan is the director of research at The Shift. Estair Van Wagner is an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School.


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3 responses to “Op-Ed: City must drop charges against encampment residents and their supporters”

  1. Evicted citizens — especially those enduring mental health tribulations (‘poor in spirit’) — who become the long-termed homeless, in effect cannot afford an official residence and therefor, by extension, are too poor to be permitted to practice what’s frequently platitudinously described as all citizens’ right to vote in elections.

    Progressive voters need to start electorally acting like the fiscal conservative voters: In most cases that I’ve witnessed in the last three decades of voting at all three levels of government, the latter electorate will, unlike the more dispersed progressive voters, manage to unite as a block to avoid splitting their money-first mentality vote.

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