Op-ed: John Tory, we cannot police our way out of a homelessness crisis

The Toronto mayor's policies contributes to the homelessness crisis instead of fixing it

I remember my family’s evictions. As refugees, I remember the constant displacement that followed us from across the ocean, the sudden loss of home and relative safety, a pattern throughout much of my childhood until we ended up in a shelter and eventually social housing.

I could not help but think about my childhood as I watched the violent evictions against encampment residents at Lamport Stadium, enforced by a police battalion equipped with drones and surveillance technology. Communities were destroyed as police demolished the encampment, arresting dozens, leaving behind a trail of people with concussions and broken bones. At least 24 people, according to the Encampment Support Network (ESN), lived at the Lamport encampment. And, almost all of them are still on the streets, forced to move into other parks in the city.

As we brace for yet another violent eviction, this time at Moss Park, Toronto Mayor John Tory carries no long-term “compassionate” plan to address housing insecurity.

Tory frames encampments as a choice in the media, but who decides to live in an encampment when shelters are at 90 per cent capacity? The waitlist for social housing in the city has increased by 51 per cent over the last decade, while rent has skyrocketed.

The mayor claims that people are offered housing when removed from encampments. In reality, encampment residents are placed in respites or shelter hotel rooms. Respites are congregated settings (not individual rooms) where strangers are often forced to sleep in close quarters, and social distancing remains impossible.

Meanwhile, temporary workers, forced to work multiple sites, staff the hotel shelters with inadequate harm reduction, de-escalation and mental health training. 

The mayor’s temporary housing solutions inform a strategy to hide people experiencing homelessness instead of providing permanent housing.

The housing crisis has existed long before the pandemic, hanging like a cloud over Toronto.

In 2019, there were an estimated 9,000 people experiencing homelessness in Toronto, more than 1,500 of those sleeping outside, with 102,049 households waitlisted for social housing – a city-wide emergency by any standard. People forced to live near ravines and under bridges are hidden away from our awareness, expelled from our responsibility.

“Visible destitution is always the key issue for those in power,” explains Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) organizer John Clarke, in an email. “City Hall consistently does as much as it has to but as little as possible to respond to shelter needs. The homeless crisis has to be seen as the extreme expression of the austerity agenda and the commodification of housing.”

The Toronto Drop-In Network issued an extensive open letter called A Path Forward with a set of recommendations, urging Tory and the city to end the forced removal of encampment residents from their communities and respect the human rights of unhoused people. The letter calls for an immediate end to “military-like tactics” by the police. The city must yield to the self-determination of encampment residents to choose their own living arrangements based on the options available to them. We need a shift towards permanent housing options in the city through rent-geared-to-income housing as “the majority of people who are, have, or will experience homelessness are simply unable to afford rent and are not chronically homeless.”

Tory refused to bring the recommendations forward for debate on the council floor. Instead, he chooses to spend hundreds of millions on paramilitary police to displace people from one park to another.

Last summer, Tory voted against a modest 10 per cent reduction to the Toronto Police budget. This year, city council spent $1.08 billion on the police budget – the most significant expense in the city’s $12.13 billion budget (compared, for instance, to the anemic $204 million allotted to our public libraries).  

Instead of lobbying the federal and provincial governments for a real national housing plan, Tory joins the chorus of elected officials who have hidden behind by-laws and policing to push people out.

More recently, Tory refused to use powers that lawyers and activists argue were available to him under the Emergency Management and Civil Protections Act to freeze evictions at the height of the pandemic. In 2017, he contributed to the homelessness crisis by lobbying the province to institute a punitive, lifetime ban on anyone who violates the law, including theft and drug offences. Tenants face potential eviction even without a conviction in a criminal court. 

The 2019 amendments to the Housing Services Act cast a wide net. Families can be banned from social housing for up to five years if someone in the household has been evicted for an illegal act. Tory’s policy on encampments is unleashed within an ecosystem of people made vulnerable through housing insecurity.

“The mayor is dismantling the encampments because they are the evidence of his failure as a mayor,” says street nurse, educator and activist Cathy Crowe, on a phone call. “The fact that we had to take the city to court to ensure social distancing in the shelters speaks volumes. The encampment protests make it clear that the city is misconstruing the reality about available shelter spaces. The entire shelter system has collapsed, and we urgently need permanent, fully funded housing.”

Toronto has no long-term strategy for permanent housing, a decision by the mayor’s office that relies on invisibility. Homelessness is reframed as a choice, hiding the social and economic roots of the crisis, while Tory tramples on the human rights of people forced to sleep outside. But we cannot police our way out of this crisis. 

Krisna Saravanamuttu is an activist, writer, and recent graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School working in criminal defence. His writing and work have appeared in Al Jazeera, The Huffington Post, rabble.ca, Spring Magazine, and The Toronto Star.


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