The Omicron variant has arrived in Canada, rapidly driving up infections. Yet, once again, people experiencing homelessness are being left behind.
Already facing the harsh reality of cold winter temperatures, they are uniquely vulnerable to the spread of this highly contagious virus.
We already know that the most vulnerable among us faced higher rates of infection and death as they were moved into congregate settings during earlier waves of the pandemic and became further displaced when police and bylaw officers deemed them trespassers and destroyed their encampments. We must not repeat these human rights violations during the Omicron wave. As governments take crucial steps to keep people safe, cities must urgently implement a human rights approach to tent encampments.
The recently released report, Trespassing on the Right to Housing, reviews the City of Toronto’s approach to encampments during the first three waves of the pandemic. It found that the pandemic deepened the city’s housing and homelessness crisis. Already insufficient shelter spaces and deteriorating conditions were exacerbated by the spread of COVID-19 in congregate settings. Despite this, Toronto has continued to apply policies, programs and bylaws that criminalize, penalize and displace unhoused people. A new approach to encampments is both urgent and necessary to live up to the City’s human rights obligations.
The report notes Toronto’s positive efforts to implement a pilot project in the Dufferin Grove encampment this fall, emphasizing meaningful engagement and a pathway to permanent housing. It also acknowledges the difficult choices city officials must make, especially during a pandemic. Even so, Toronto has chosen to implement policies that have facilitated violence, criminalization, and penalization of encampment residents and their advocates. Indeed, it spent almost $2 million violently evicting residents of just three encampments, few of whom have ended up in permanent housing or even indoors.
Toronto’s emphasis on evictions, arrests and harassment exposes the municipality to legal action and undermines the possibility for meaningful engagement and relationship-building with encampment residents – the core of a human rights approach. It also calls into question its commitments to upholding the rights of Indigenous and racialized people, who are disproportionately represented in encampments.
It’s abundantly clear that Toronto’s approach does not work. This is true of other cities that have adopted similar policies. It has not stopped encampments from proliferating. It does not provide people with housing. People are living in encampments because they do not have safe alternatives.
Toronto and other cities can and should make different decisions. It must take concrete steps. Many can be implemented in the immediate and short-term: a prohibition on encampment evictions; meaningful consultation with encampment residents; collaboration with Indigenous peoples and partners; providing supports such as heat, water and sanitation; and introducing a system to navigate permanent housing options that meet encampment residents’ individual needs.
In the long-term, Toronto should repeal bylaws that have criminalized and penalized people experiencing homelessness and commit to a comprehensive social and affordable rental housing market with intergovernmental partners. Toronto must also renew its commitment to a Housing First approach rather than reliance on the shelter system.
Toronto, and all cities, must fulfill their legal obligations and live up to the important commitment to all residents, housed and unhoused, to realize the right to housing.
As we face down another COVID-19 wave we must respond with respect and compassion, not trespass orders and violence. After all, aren’t we all in this together?
Estair Van Wagner is an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School. Alexandra Flynn is an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s Peter A. Allard School of Law. They are co-authors, along with Kaitlin Schwan, of Trespassing on the Right To Housing.