Toronto mobilizes parks ambassadors to clear encampments

Housing activists say they've noticed increased "surveillance" of people living in parks


Around the start of COVID-19, at an encampment on the property of Holy Trinity Church in Toronto, residents received certification papers from church leaders verifying they were allowed to live there.

But Teanna Macintyre, a resident at the time, says city parks ambassadors came by almost daily to try and force everyone off the property.

“They would tell us to go stand by the wall, and they would go through our stuff,” she says, adding the ambassadors would often respond to complaints received via phone or email from passersby or area residents.

Macintyre, who was pregnant then and is now living in a friend’s apartment, volunteers at the church. She says parks ambassadors made it difficult to live comfortably and safely at Holy Trinity.

“It always felt like they were threatening us,” she says. “We had fire extinguishers there in case there was ever a fire on the property, and we had our own barbecue. But they took our barbecue because they were saying it was a fire hazard. But how are we supposed to cook if we’re out here?”

Macintyre says there were never any safety concerns while she was there before moving out in the fall of 2020. In January 2021, there was a fire at the encampment but no one was hurt.

Parks ambassadors became a part of the city’s response to homelessness back in 2003, prior to the establishment of Streets to Homes, the city-funded program that helps move street-involved people into housing.

But since the number of people living in parks has increased during the pandemic, housing activists and people experiencing homelessness say they are not clear on the ambassadors’ roles.

Activists argue the ambassadors are not trained to deal with street-involved people, some of whom have addiction issues, and have witnessed incidents of aggression and intimidation against people living in city parks. They say that as the city has gentrified, the dynamic with the city workers “shifted,” resulting in parks ambassadors taking on the role of “surveilling” people living in encampments.

In an email statement to NOW, Jaclyn Carlisle, a senior communications coordinator with the city, says the role of park ambassadors is to “ensure that the city’s parks are safe for everyone to enjoy, are ready to facilitate permitted activities and to assist in resolving conflicts where they arise.”

She adds that “Parks Ambassadors are representatives of the City of Toronto in the same way that all City employees are” and that they visit parks daily to “engage” with people living in encampments – referring them to city housing programs via the Toronto Shelter, Support and Housing Administration, conducting safety and wellness checks, and distributing socks and water.

“Parks Ambassadors do not have any enforcement ability or powers to ticket or arrest,” says Carlisle.

Wearing bright yellow vests, not unlike the vests Toronto police wear, ambassadors are often seen biking from park to park, sometimes approaching residents but sometimes just patrolling. The high-visibility vests were a new addition to the uniform in fall 2020, which the city said are required under the Occupational Health and Safety Act for employees working outside near major roadways.

Ward 13 councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam confirms that there are currently two full-time parks ambassadors employed by the city and five additional seasonal parks ambassadors.

As more encampments popped up over the course of the pandemic, the city has ramped up the presence of ambassadors in parks and issued a notice that residents will need to accept a space in one of the city-run shelter hotels or vacate parks by April 6. However, an outbreak of COVID-19 that affected four residents of a shelter hotel on the Esplanade has forced the city to postpone the removal of residents.

Encampment residents have resisted efforts to move them from parks into shelter hotels, voicing concerns over their health, safety and autonomy in the hotels.

The shelters have been the source of multiple COVID-19 outbreaks. As of April 18, there were 33 active outbreaks in five city hotel shelters. Other residents say they are more comfortable in the communities they have built within encampments, which are nearer to medical appointments and don’t come with the city-imposed restrictions of shelter hotels, where pets, drinking alcohol and having guests are prohibited.

On March 16, the city announced the Pathway Inside program, aimed at clearing four of the city’s most visible park encampments. City workers posted schedules on trees throughout the four parks for weeks informing residents when ambassadors would make daily visits.

In a statement released on March 19, a coalition of lawyers argued the city’s plan is illegal and cited concerns over discrimination against people with disabilities and the violation of Charter Rights, as well as human rights, especially considering there are currently 14 active outbreaks in shelters.”

The city did not respond to a request for comment regarding the press release.

A slide in the parks ambassador training presentation within city documents obtained by Factcheck Toronto and the Environmental Justice and Sustainability Clinic at Osgoode Hall Law School outlines the decision tree ambassadors should follow when encountering encampments.

A slide in the parks ambassador training presentation within city documents obtained by Factcheck Toronto and the Environmental Justice and Sustainability Clinic at Osgoode Hall Law School outlines the decision tree ambassadors should follow when encountering encampments.

Increased focus on encampments in parks ambassador training

City documents from 2017 and 2020 obtained through Freedom of Information requests made by housing activist A.J. Withers, Factcheck Toronto and Osgoode Hall Law School’s Environmental Justice and Sustainability Clinic show that encounters between parks ambassadors and encampment residents more than doubled from 319 in 2017 to 725 in 2019.

The documents also suggest that parks ambassadors spend a good amount of time learning how to deal with encampments and encampment residents. Email communications, data reports and presentations within the documents highlight the focus of the parks ambassador program on encampments.

Of the 65 training slides included in the FOI disclosure, more than half are focused on encampments, including a “decision tree” outlining two responses to people “erecting structures” in parks. Both responses end in the dismantling and clearing of the encampment. 

The FOI documents also include materials instructing ambassadors on how to use an app to track and document existing encampments. The app allows park ambassadors to input the location of an encampment and then mark its status. Options include “Clearing Approved,” “Site Cleared” and “Urgent Removal Site.” 

“There has been a sustained increase in overall park usage and a significant increase in the number of encampments in parks,” Carlisle says.

Greg Cook, an outreach worker at Sanctuary Toronto, says the data reflects the growing number of people experiencing homelessness in the city, along with an increasing presence of park ambassadors in encampment settings.

“There’s a whole bunch of city infrastructure that actually displaces people who are poor, and parks ambassadors are another piece of it that keeps growing,” Cook says.

In an email obtained by Withers as part of another FOI request in 2017, a park ambassador sent photos to a supervisor describing “leftover debris” from overnight sleepers in St. James Park, including clothes and other belongings. The ambassador writes that they “got rid of the bedding material to discourage overnight sleepers.”

In another email, an unnamed person contacted a parks ambassador who has also served as a coordinator for the program, to notify him of a person in a wheelchair sleeping overnight in the park and cited concern for his safety. Another parks ambassador who responded to the email, notes that police officers had been notified and would bring the person to a hospital to “receive the care he needs,” rather than an offer of housing.

The city did not respond to a question about why a person might be directed to a hospital rather than offered housing. Carlisle stated that sometimes people living outside are in poor health and require “immediate medical assistance.”

Another email in the 2017 FOI reveals that parks ambassadors perform “safety audits.” Although they do not write tickets or have the ability to arrest, “they do enforcement through education and strive for positive compliance. Parks Ambassadors are responsive in making Parks accessible, equitable and safe.”

A photo of Jesse Iker crouching in front of a fence
Photo Credit Greg Cook

Jesse Iker, whose tent was slashed by a parks ambassador, crouches near the welcome mat where his tent used to be.

“We don’t know what their role is supposed to be”

Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Toronto, says she was coordinating with the city’s Streets to Homes in the summer of 2020 to find housing options for the people living in encampments that were scheduled to be cleared. While Lam says they were able to move most people, “the agreement between us and with the city was that those remaining tents would be left untouched.”

She says that at 7 am the next morning, a team of parks ambassadors showed up on the property and proceeded to slash the remaining tents. Inside one of the tents was Jesse Iker, a resident who was sleeping at the time, who was told he had to leave immediately or police would be called.

Lam says the experience was traumatizing for Iker. “He never bounced back from that for a few days,” Lam says. Iker passed away just a few months later, unrelated to the destruction of his tent.

Scott McKean, the city’s manager of community development, offered an apology for what happened.

“First and foremost, it shouldn’t have happened and it happened in error and that is not acceptable,” he wrote in an email to Lam.

Lam says dealing with parks ambassadors is “puzzling” and is not clear on their jurisdiction.

“These parks ambassadors wield this power in the community over people. And yet, we don’t know what it is that their role is supposed to be. More often than not, they cause more harm than anything,” she says. 

Macintyre remembers the parks ambassadors making it difficult for the residents there to live peacefully.

“They would go around to our tents and put our stuff inside the garbage cans, and we’d have to go back and get it ourselves,” she says, adding the workers often looked for drugs and other items they would then confiscate.

The city did not respond to questions about incidents of parks ambassadors going through the belongings of residents.

“If structures, including tents, are abandoned or the people using them have voluntarily chosen to accept referrals for safer inside spaces and have confirmed that they’ve collected their belongings, City staff remove the structure and any debris left behind as part of tidying the park,” the city wrote in an email statement.

The city added that parks staff, not parks ambassadors, remove abandoned structures and debris from city parks.

More 311 calls directed at encampments

Lam notes there has been an influx of wealthier residents moving into areas like the Downtown East and area neighbourhoods. The percentage of households reporting over $80,000 in yearly income grew to 23 per cent in 2016 in Regent Park, to 39 per cent in Cabbagetown and to 34 per cent in the Church-Yonge Corridor.

In 2018, the city implemented a Downtown East Action Plan in 2018 to address the “long-term community needs.”

Cook says that while it was sold as a plan for more services for those living within the area, it became more about extra funding for parks ambassadors and parks cleaning. The plan describes “enhanced street and laneway cleaning including in the area by Solid Waste Management Services and Transportation Services” and “enhanced staffing resources for Parks Ambassadors and Parks Cleaning” as two of the major targets.

Wong-Tam says that while she doesn’t have data, she says her office has seen a rise in constituent requests asking for 311 services in parks. Some of those requests involve cleanliness, such as discarded drug paraphernalia, or loud noises and other “altercations.”

Wong-Tam says that while housing activists and encampment residents may be observing more park enforcement, “Many can probably argue that it’s one of the most understaffed programs in the entire city,” she says.

She says parks ambassadors can’t keep up with the volume of service calls they get, suggesting that if activists have noted an increased presence of parks ambassadors in certain parks, it’s likely because they’ve received a high number of 311 calls.

“I wouldn’t even know why they would go to a park when there’s no service call, to be quite honest, because their plates are full.”

The city confirms in a statement that while parks ambassadors will visit parks identified in 311 service calls, “these calls do not solely direct the Ambassador’s park visits. Currently, they visit all City parks with encampments to provide referrals and supports.”

Robert Dods, who used to live at an encampment at Church Street and Park Road, says the parks ambassadors he’s come in contact with don’t seem to have the right tools or training to work with people who are street-involved. Parks ambassadors are supposed to be trained in harm reduction and crisis intervention, though it’s unclear how much time is devoted to these topics.

Dods remembers one time he was drinking in a park with a few friends and was approached by parks ambassadors and told he couldn’t drink in public. Dods, who deals with alcohol addiction, was frustrated because he felt like that was the only place he could drink safely.

“I’m an alcoholic, I can go to St. Michael’s Hospital and talk to the addiction doctors, I’ll tell you straight up,” he says. “I told them to go ahead and call the cops, by all means.”

One of the slides used for training parks ambassadors says that people living in parks and encampments, want to be treated with Dignity and Respect! 

But Macintyre says it’s never felt that way for her. “It’s unacceptable for us homeless people to be deserving this. We don’t need the drama.”

Lam says the disconnect needs to change. “It’s not like they really ever engage the community, but then they are some of the loudest voices in terms of being against encampments and bringing tents down.”

@juliajmastro

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