City workers, some in white hazmat suits ready to begin dismantling people's homes and load material into a white city truck. Image credit: Paul Salvatori/Used with Permission

Twenty years ago, I slept fitfully with my orange Nokia cell phone beside my bed, because in recent weeks it had become clear that Tent City, the Toronto waterfront encampment of 140 people, was about to be pounced on. Myself and my colleagues at the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee knew we would need to mobilize to protect people. 

All the signs were there: an increased police presence cruising through the site, reports of verbal eviction threats by police, resistance by the city to commit to their promise of a safe relocation of the community using modular housing to Commissioner Street, and a refusal by then-Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman to accept the shelter system was both full and inhumane. To add to that, a New York Times article on the Home Depot-owned site that suggested Toronto was “fraying.” Seemingly, Toronto mayors don’t like to be humiliated with visible homelessness.

The media coverage of Tent City was international, in part because the location would have become the site of the Olympic Village, had Toronto won its bid to host the 2008 games.

The coverage shattered the perception of “Toronto the good.” A 2002 Globe and Mail article described Tent City as “a shantytown that had become a civic embarrassment for Toronto.” The article quoted Mary Halton, vice-president of Home Depot Canada: “We have had increasing concern that this is not a safe place for people to be.” In addition, the mayor (Lastman) insisted the city had 200 empty beds in its shelters and there was a place for everyone who was evicted.

Sound familiar? Whether you are in Toronto, Vancouver, Kingston, or Edmonton, city officials cite safety concerns and available shelter space to justify the criminalization of homelessness with tactics such as anti-camping by-laws, fines, and ultimately, violent evictions.

My cell phone did go off. Tent City was indeed brutally evicted early one morning. A fence went up around the site, a convoy of trucks and heavy machinery rolled in, a substantial amount of security and police arrived to remove traumatized residents and within hours their homes — a combination of self-built shacks and prefab homes — were flattened. Solidarity protests happened within the hour and included union flying-squad members. Years of housing activism including by the Tent City residents meant that they fought and won housing through a pilot rent supplement program. The story is told in the film Shelter from the Storm by Michael Connelly. 

Today, Toronto’s mayor is John Tory, who, along with his city council, has resisted declaring homelessness a state of emergency for several years, despite pleas for help from homeless people, frontline experts in the field and quite frankly citizens that can see it with their own eyes.

Homelessness has exploded in Tory’s Toronto. His city is more than fraying. It is ruptured with surgical assistance by other levels of government.

Shelter conditions have deteriorated. A second and third-tier of shelters now operate in congregate sites with lesser standards — case in point, they don’t have beds! An estimated 1,000 plus people are living outdoors, many in the growing number of encampments. Homeless deaths are now in the double digits every month. People are literally dying while being refused a shelter bed, let alone housing. Factcheck Toronto has delineated a long list of the city’s failures (violence, people regularly refused a shelter bed) using freedom of information requests and the city’s own statistics. 

The pandemic hit the homeless sector hard. To date there have been 120 COVID-19 outbreaks in Toronto shelters with over 1600 people infected in those outbreaks. There have been ten homeless people confirmed as COVID-19 deaths. Toronto’s congregate shelter system is in denial of the concept of airborne infection.

Toronto’s municipal government had many chances to develop a human-rights approach to homelessness. It was prepared and hand delivered a year ago by Leilani Farha, the Canadian lawyer who was the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing prior to becoming the global director of THE SHIFT.

The report “A National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada” calls for meaningful engagement of people in encampments and no forced evictions. Its emphasis is on respect, dignity, human rights. There has been no indication the city enacted any steps recommended in this rights-based approach.

This week’s militarized operation to evict two dozen people in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park was a macabre story of city hall versus poor people. As outreach worker Greg Cook asked: “why do police with guns come to remove people who can’t afford housing?”

Even some members of the media later acknowledged that street pastor Doug Johnson’s claim that the tactics at Trinity Bellwoods represented a war on the poor seemed fitting.

Shawn Micallef, a thoughtful chronicler of the city he clearly loves, wrote in his Toronto Star column: “The mayor sets the tone, and the tone is mean.”

Police on rooftops, a police drone, over 100 Toronto Police public order group officers (read, riot squad), mounted police, private security, city corporate security, crowd control weaponry, pepper spray, and of course the big fence all gave the feel of the horrific G20 response that saw extraordinary violations of human rights: people beaten, kettled, arrested, strip-searched and kept in fenced holding cells in a warehouse.

Meanwhile, city workers in white hazmat suits did the dirty work at Trinity Bellwoods Park.

Leilani Farha immediately tweeted

“They’ve done exactly what I asked them not to do. It didn’t have to be this way. The city knows they’re infringing #humanrights + they know only dialogue will lead to lasting durable solutions. The intention here is a show of force so ppl in #homelessness know who’s in control.”

In the day-after media conference Mayor Tory insisted the amount of police was to protect and allow the city workers to do their job. 

To be clear, the city workers’ job, while being “protected,” was to dismantle tents, tiny wooden shelters, gather remaining belongings, furniture and fill dumpsters and pick-up trucks. Others arranged admittance to ‘safe inside places’ which are widely understood to be the shelter/hotels, not housing.

The dignity and clarity of Sue, a 65 year-old homeless woman living at Trinity Bellwoods is stunning.  She said she was going to defend her civil, human charter rights. “The only rights we have are the ones we stand up for.”

That’s the challenge. Will we, including organized labour, stand up?

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

Image credit: Paul Salvatori/Used with Permission