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Toronto chose expediency over needs of homeless people in park encampments: ombudsman

Police remove encampment supporters as they clear Lamport Stadium Park encampment in Toronto on Wednesday July 21, 2021. Toronto's ombudsman says the city caused undue harm and showed a lack of dignity and respect for people living in parks when it cleared three homeless encampments in summer 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Toronto caused unnecessary harm and showed a lack of respect for individuals living in parks when it cleared three homeless encampments in the summer of 2021, the city's ombudsman said Friday.

Ombudsman Kwame Addo found the city chose expediency and enforcement over the needs of those in temporary dwellings in local parks, but there was no evidence to suggest the encampments were an emergency requiring such an urgent response.

"The overall result was significant unfairness in how the city planned, engaged stakeholders and communicated about the encampment clearings," Addo wrote in his report on the encampment clearings. 

"The city showed a lack of commitment to honouring its pledge to a human rights approach and to serving this vulnerable population with the dignity and respect they deserve."

Addo's office launched an investigation in September 2021 after receiving complaints about the city's approach to clearing encampments in Trinity Bellwoods, Alexandra and Lamport Stadium parks. 

The operations saw police officers in riot gear clear the sites of residents and their supporters, and resulted in dozens of people facing charges. 

Encampments cropped up in many city parks when the pandemic hit in March 2020, as hundreds fled shelters for fears of contracting COVID-19.

The city has long maintained that encampments are unsafe. Toronto police have said they were supporting city staff in clearing the encampments in 2021 and carried out enforcement action as a last resort.

Addo's office conducted an extensive review of documents and interviewed city staff, community workers and people with lived experience of encampments and homelessness. 

His report said support workers categorized the clearings as a "traumatic experience" that exacerbated mental health problems of many encampment residents. That was partly due to the scale of the clearings, inconsistent communication around the process and residents being told they had two hours to pack their belongings.

"The city's process for notifying individuals in encampments about planned clearings was unclear, confusing and lacking in transparency, and showed a significant lack of understanding about their reality," Addo wrote, noting the city thought residents would have access to news releases or the internet.

The report found the city's protocol for dealing with encampments was outdated and inconsistently followed, but the city manager had instructed the encampments be dealt with "in expeditious order ... clear no later than the end of June ... at war-time speed."

Addo's office heard from the public that the parks had become inaccessible and some residents had issues with the presence of encampments. The city also heard from people who felt those living in encampments had a right to be there. 

The ombudsman said the relationship between the city and community groups that support those living in encampments had eroded, and the city failed to engage meaningfully, consistently and transparently throughout the clearing process.

The report featured 23 recommendations, including that the city ensure divisions tasked with clearing encampments are properly resourced, that those living in encampments have supports from social services if their dwellings are cleared, and that the city provide clear, accessible communication about the clearing process.

Those were in addition to eight recommendations from an interim report in July 2022, in which Addo urged the city to clearly outline the mandate of its encampment office and update its response protocol.

The City of Toronto said it accepts all the recommendations, but did not respond to specific criticisms of its handling of the encampment clearings. 

"City staff will be unavailable to respond to the report further until it is presented to council," city spokesman Anthony Toderian said in an email. 

The city said there are currently 75 encampments in 23 of Toronto's greenspaces. It said that is a reduction from 370 encampments in 58 greenspaces in June 2021. The city said an encampment refers to a tent or structure that may or may not be occupied.

The ombudsman noted that an encampment clearing between August and December 2021, in Dufferin Grove Park, marked a significant improvement. The city took a gradual, "housing-first approach" that allowed staff to build trust with encampment residents and offer housing and mental health supports, without the use of enforcement, he said.

"I strongly encourage the city to formalize the Dufferin Grove initiative and make it the blueprint for the city's encampment response," he said.

Longtime street nurse Cathy Crowe called Addo's report a thorough one. 

"It essentially demonstrates that homeless people were treated like an infestation ... the efforts were to stomp them out and never have them come back, as fast as possible," said Crowe. 

"It tells the tale of malpractice that led to violence and injury."

Toronto councillors should ask for a detailed report on how the report's recommendations will be implemented, said Crowe. 

"In the meantime, there should be a moratorium on encampment evictions," she added.

In December, the Ontario Human Rights Commission said ongoing consultations have revealed that desperate situations — including a lack of affordable housing, economic inequality and gaps in mental health and addiction care — are leading to people living in encampments. 

It urged that solutions to homelessness and encampments be grounded in human rights-based approaches, delivered with respect and compassion.

Federal housing advocate Marie-Josée Houle launched a review of homeless encampments in Canada in February, calling the situation a human rights crisis fuelled in part by the failure of all levels of government to provide adequate housing.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2023.

Tyler Griffin, The Canadian Press

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