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Homeless encampments are here to stay

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A teacher stands in front of a bulldozer at an encampment eviction under the Gardiner Expressway. Image: submitted by Cathy Crowe

The month of June began with 482 homeless people having tested positive for COVID-19 in over two dozen Toronto shelters. It is no small wonder that the numbers of people in outdoor encampments soared through the month. Shelters were at capacity, a new capacity thanks to an agreement made between the city and the legal coalition that fought for and won two-metre physical distancing in all shelters.

Although the city had announced a moratorium on encampment evictions during the pandemic, it soon changed its mind and things got tense. At one eviction a teacher named Anna stood in protest in front of a bulldozer.

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty responded to the evictions in an open letter to the city:

"The situation has forced hundreds, likely well over a thousand people, to seek protection in tents outdoors. Despite this, you've reversed a prior moratorium and are now actively clearing homeless encampments.

We call on you to follow the advice of international health experts by immediately ending the dismantling of homeless encampments and open up vacant housing units or hotel rooms for homeless people. Moving forward, we further call on you not to worsen the already pre-COVID shelter crisis by implementing deadly austerity measures; rather, to have the foresight to recognize low income housing as an urgent health need and create more units.

The shelters are full. Homeless people and front-line workers experience the inability to access beds on a daily basis.

The City is using 'health and safety' as an excuse to destroy the encampments but the United Nations and the Center for Disease Control both say it is unsafe to do this. The CDC says:

  • If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.
  • Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.

It outlines supports the City should be putting in place instead – like ensuring people have washroom access. The US National Law Centre on Homelessness and Poverty says:

preserving individuals’ ability to sleep in private tents instead of mass facilities through repealing -- or at least pausing enforcement of -- ordinances banning camping or sleeping in public would ensure people can more safely shelter in place, maintain social distancing, and reduce sleep deprivation. Encampments should be provided with preventative solutions -- like mobile toilets, sanitation stations, and trash bins -- to further reduce harm."

But evictions are not the only harassment homeless people face. There are reports of police fining homeless people for not physically distancing. In an open letter to local city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, faith and health groups write:

"The most egregious action, and there have been many, was the removal of four benches in Allan Gardens on April 27, 2019 that was used by the Neechi Healing Circle. Participants of the Circle include residential school survivors and those who endured the '60s scoop, some have physical challenges that require them to sit down."

In June the news that 46 homeless people were arrested in a Vancouver, B.C. encampment for refusing to leave was cause for alarm across the country. In Kingston, Ontario, the threatened eviction of an encampment was put on hold in response to outcry from activists.

Municipalities are intentionally neglecting to provide the most basic public health measures for encampments: event-style washrooms, running water, handwashing stations, garbage pick-up and fire safety.

Encampments are here to stay and they will grow. Why? Because of the deafening silence both pre and post COVID on a national housing program.

June ended with 610 positive COVID-19 cases in 38 Toronto shelters, four deaths and a broad estimate of between 1,500 and 2,500 people trying to survive outdoors.

Cathy Crowe is a street nurse, author and filmmaker who works nationally and locally on health and social justice issues.

Image: submitted by Cathy Crowe

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