Toronto “chose speed over people” when it cleared three large homeless encampments in the summer of 2021, the city’s ombudsman has concluded following an investigation into what happened.
In a report released Friday, ombudsman Kwame Addo says City of Toronto officials treated encampment residents with “significant unfairness” by focusing on removing them and their possessions quickly, rather than addressing their needs. The investigation found that the city didn’t engage meaningfully with residents, and that it failed to provide social services and mental health supports to help them with the transition.
The city directed the clearing of encampments at Trinity Bellwoods, Alexandra and Lamport Stadium parks in June and July, 2021. Violent clashes broke out as police and security guards attempted to fence off the parks while residents and their supporters protested the removals. There were multiple arrests and several reports of injuries.
“Our investigation found the city displayed insufficient regard for the people it moved out of the parks. It failed to live up to its stated commitments to fairness and a human rights-based approach to housing,” Mr. Addo said in a statement Friday. “Encampments and supporting the people living in them are complex. But the city owes a particularly high duty of fairness to these residents.”
Mr. Addo’s report contains 31 recommendations, including that the city improve its decision-making in addressing encampments, and that it create a new encampment working group, with membership made up of representatives from several city divisions, including housing, social services and emergency services. The report notes that acting on its recommendations won’t solve all the challenges associated with encampments in the city.
The ombudsman also recommends that encampment residents be notified ahead of time of the dates by which they are expected to leave.
Clearing the three encampments – including staffing, fencing around the parks and landscape restoration – cost Toronto $2-million.
In a statement Friday, the city accepted the ombudsman’s recommendations and said it is committed to connecting homeless residents with shelter and housing services. But the statement didn’t include an apology for the city’s actions. The city added that it “urgently” needs investments from senior levels of government to increase the supply of affordable rental housing with on-site harm reduction and mental health supports.
“The city cannot force people to come inside and use the many services offered in shelters but it continues to encourage people to accept offers of shelter and housing options,” the statement said.
Mr. Addo said he expects city staff to report back quarterly with status updates on the implementation of the recommendations, until they are all followed.
At the time of the clearings, then-mayor John Tory said he supported city staff’s decision to remove the encampments. He cited safety concerns, and the availability of city shelter facilities.
There were 370 encampments in 58 city green spaces in June, 2021, according to data from the city, after a significant increase during the COVID-19 pandemic. That figure has since dropped significantly. The city now says there are 75 encampments across 23 sites.
Last year, the city’s Streets to Homes outreach team referred 1,277 people to shelter services, 1,112 of whom were living in encampments.
The high-profile encampment removals in Toronto predate a January, 2023, Ontario court ruling involving the Regional Municipality of Waterloo, in which a judge determined that encampments can’t be removed if there isn’t appropriate indoor shelter space available.