Encampment tear-downs part of keeping homelessness out of sight and mind

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Police tear down an encampment in a Halifax park as protestors look on, August 18, 2021. Image: Kate Higginson/Used with permission

Homelessness is not something anybody likes to see. We'd rather have poverty tucked away, out of sight, out of mind -- in basement apartments, rooming houses and shelters -- than have to confront its existence in our public parks.

The visibility of homelessness forces us to reckon with the fact that in a nation as rich as ours, hundreds of thousands of people struggle to afford the rent needed to find a place to live or keep one. 

Perhaps that is why municipalities across the country try so hard -- and spend so much money --  to keep those experiencing homelessness moving from one place to the next, in and out of shelters, but most importantly, out of public view.

Regardless of economic status, everyone deserves the safety and dignity that comes with having a place to call one's own. Homelessness causes increased stress, adverse health outcomes and a deterioration of one's human rights. Just because we as a society may not like having to see the manifestations of capitalism's disregard for the human rights of those without a home does not mean they don't exist.  

Encampments -- where the homeless have set up tents or other structures to live in -- have been popping up in cities across Canada for a long time, though they are often tucked away in the city's less populated areas, like along ravines or under overpasses.

The difference is not that these places are new, but that there are more of them and they are more visible to the public 

This is not a bad thing.  

With visibility comes political capital -- the drawing of attention to an issue that most Canadians would prefer to ignore. More than 235,000 people in Canada experience homelessness in any given year, and 25,000 to 35,000 people may be experiencing homelessness on any given night, according to Statistics Canada

With political capital hopefully comes change.  

Homelessness has always been a personal and a political issue.  

One of Toronto's largest encampments was known as Tent City (1999 to 2002). Tent City was a homeless community, self-built and self-managed, at the foot of Cherry Street, on land owned by the Home Depot. Groups like the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee had helped to support the settlement with the implementation of more permanent shelters. At one point, it was estimated that one hundred people called it home. 

In late September, 2002, security officers, backed by Toronto police, along with flat-bed trucks and menacing bulldozers, arrived at the two-year-old settlement to evict its residents. 

In a morning news release, Home Depot cited health and safety concerns as the driving force behind the evictions. The city speculated that the occupied land was contaminated by toxic chemicals. 

Many at the scene speculated the raid was related to embarrassment born by the city as a result of a New York Times article that criticized Toronto's less-than-world-class homeless problem or to a recent accusation that residents were stealing electricity. 

Toronto's waterfront has always been prized real estate and the proximity to the downtown core were also cited as reasons why it was shut down.  

Proximity to the downtown core increases visibility of the problem. This was cited as one of the reasons why Occupy Toronto was attacked and eventually folded. Businessmen and businesswomen walking to work were simply not comfortable having to share a sidewalk -- whether on the street or through St. James Park -- with a bunch of urban campers.  

Visibility of the homeless in Toronto reached its peak in 2002 when the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) opened the Pope Squat in Parkdale. During Pope John Paul II's visit to Toronto, local activists brought attention to the sinful lack of affordable housing by taking over an abandoned building. 

In their initial press release, OCAP highlighted the gravity of the housing situation in Toronto and their reasons for opening the squat:

"We've been waiting, agitating, protesting, lobbying and asking for social housing to be built for years. We have seen thousands of our friends and family evicted. We have seen our rent shoot through our decaying roofs. We have seen hundreds of people die on our streets. We can wait no longer!" 

The visibility of poverty and homelessness was already being affected by the 1999 passing of Ontario's Safe Streets Act, legislature that "prohibits aggressive solicitation of persons in certain public places. It also prohibits the disposal of "certain dangerous things" such as used condoms, hypodermic needles and broken glass in outdoor public places."   

Before the Pope arrived, ani-poverty activists accused the Ontario government and Toronto police of sweeping visible signs of homelessness and poverty off the streets to improve the quality of the experience of Catholic pilgrims who were arriving in Toronto that summer and also to improve Toronto's global through the media coverage it anticipated receiving. This is why OCAP flipped the script and made a public spectacle of the need for the squat since the city itself was proving inadequate levels of social housing.  

NIMBY'ism (Not In My Back Yard) also affects the visibility of the affordable housing shortage by allowing control over who someone can call their neighbour. And since only the rich can afford to own their own home or pay the high cost of rent to live in some downtown neighbourhoods, they can actively prevent low income housing, shelters or encampments in their neighbourhoods.  

Right now, Toronto is suffering through its own crisis of poverty, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Drop-in shelters have either closed down completely or severely reduced operating hours, foodbanks have closed and shelters have had to take steps to prevent the spread of the virus through its buildings. But there is doubt among shelter resident users around their safety. 

The city has implemented temporary solutions like hotel/motel rooms but these temporary solutions do more to remove the visibility of people who are experiencing homelessness than actually fixing the problem of the lack of affordable, safe housing in the city.  

According to the Encampment Support Network, there are multiple reasons other than the fear of catching COVID-19 why people are choosing to stay in public parks as opposed to the shelter system. These include people having negative experiences living in shelters, whether their belongings were stolen, they felt unsafe, or that the physical conditions of some shelters remind people of traumatizing experiences such as prisons or residential schools.  

Shelters have never been an adequate solution to the housing crisis we face, and while living in the park is not ideal, it is deemed a safer and more dignified solution by many. The current wave of evictions of these encampments makes a social issue one that suddenly involves the police, which further threatens an already vulnerable group. We can't ticket or arrest our way out of this problem. 

Shelters and temporary housing, just like the eviction of encampments, hides the homeless away from the public eye and prevents real public knowledge and pressure to solve the housing crisis we have across Canada.  

krystalline kraus is an intrepid explorer and reporter from Toronto, Canada. A veteran activist and journalist for rabble.ca since 2001, she needs no aviator goggles, gas mask or red cape to proceed fearlessly into the democratic fray.

Image: Kate Higginson/Used with permission

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