Ever since Gru arrived in Toronto, he has been without a permanent place to live. Within a few months of the start of the pandemic, he moved his tent to an encampment at the city’s Trinity Bellwoods Park.
Gru, who declined to provide a last name, said he was offered a spot at a temporary homeless shelter in the Novotel Toronto Centre hotel in March and has been living there since. But, when the city’s lease on the hotel ends in December, he’s not sure where he’ll go.
On Monday afternoon he spoke in front of nearly 150 people who had gathered in front of Toronto City Hall to condemn the city’s recent evictions of encampment residents from city parks. Over the past five weeks, the city has cleared tents from Trinity Bellwoods Park, Alexandra Park and Lamport Stadium Park.
“I just want to be left alone,” Gru told the crowd. He added that evictions from outdoor spaces have forced him to move repeatedly.
Encampment residents and advocates say that the park evictions have worsened the city’s ongoing affordable-housing crisis by displacing people who are badly in need of shelter. They are calling for the city to enact more long-term solutions that will help people without homes find safe, permanent places to live.
Monday’s rally was organized by two advocacy groups, the Shelter and Housing Justice Network and Health Providers Against Poverty. People experiencing homelessness and their advocates took turns addressing the crowd. Many criticized the clearing of Lamport Stadium, during which protesters clashed with Toronto police officers.
“What happened at Lamport last week was one of the most violent and upsetting days the city has seen in a very long time,” said Tommy Taylor, a member of the Shelter and Housing Justice Network.
Gru, who went to Lamport Stadium to support encampment residents last week, said he was pepper sprayed during the eviction.
Toronto Police Service spokeswoman Connie Osborne said in an e-mail that police officers had issued many warnings to protesters at Lamport Stadium, but that they “refused to comply” with the orders.
She added that officers can use a number of tactics, including pepper spray, batons and de-escalation techniques, to protect themselves and others in crowd control situations. She said TPS is aware of one formal complaint arising from the Lamport Stadium clearing.
Jennifer Jewell, who used to camp at Dufferin Grove Park but now lives at a temporary shelter, read aloud a list of demands that encampment residents across the city had jointly drafted. They included calls for the resignation of Toronto Mayor John Tory, and for the city to end the evictions and decriminalize encampments.
Lawvin Hadisi, a spokesperson for Mayor Tory, said in an e-mail that “encampments are unsafe, unhealthy and illegal,” which is why the city has placed more than 1,700 former encampment residents in safe indoor spaces during the pandemic. She added that the city intends to build hundreds of affordable and supportive housing units with financial support from the federal and provincial governments.
“It is clear from today’s protest that this is mainly about political theatre and not actually about meaningfully helping a few dozen people who continue to occupy unsafe encampments,” Ms. Hadisi said.
Many encampment residents have said they feel unsafe in the city’s shelters because of COVID-19 and reports of violence. Some have also said wellness checks – when shelter staff enter residents’ rooms – can be traumatizing.
Ms. Jewell said in an interview that every time people are evicted from encampments they lose their belongings and have to start all over. The constant moving, she said, makes it hard for outreach workers to find people and connect them with housing.
“People are going to end up under bridges and in ravines and alleyways and places where they’re disconnected from their friends,” Mr. Taylor said. “It’s deadly. That’s not a solution.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.