In London, Ont., a city of about half a million people, hundreds are sleeping rough each night, many of them clustered in tents along the Thames River.
In Charlottetown, a 50-bed shelter opened in January, doubling the island’s total shelter capacity – but it’s still not enough, with the most recent end-of-year count identifying at least 114 people experiencing homelessness in the city.
And in Abbotsford, B.C., the city says one highway-adjacent encampment has led to hundreds of calls for emergency services just in the first half of this year alone.
Homelessness has become increasingly visible in major Canadian cities such as Vancouver and Toronto, where it became a significant issue in the recent mayoral by-election campaign. A state of emergency on homelessness was declared in Ontario’s capital in May after similar moves by Hamilton, Niagara Falls and Ottawa. Medium-sized cities and even small towns across the country are also scrambling to develop their own approaches to deal with encampments in the face of an unrelenting housing-affordability crisis, rising community tensions and court rulings that have required tents to be permitted if indoor shelter is not available.
Municipal policies have ranged from harm reduction to enforcement. London’s city council, for example, voted recently to provide supports on site for homeless people, while politicians in the Southern Ontario city of Barrie faced national backlash last month for proposed bylaw changes that would have seen people fined for giving out food or other supplies on public property.
“People are watching how cities respond,” said Tim Richter, executive director of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, adding that he has sympathy for mayors who are trying to solve a crisis that the provincial and federal governments should be addressing.
“Politicians are responding to public concern and frustration.”
Local governments have faced added pressure after court rulings that found evicting people from encampments violates the Charter if there are insufficient indoor shelter spaces available, which is the case in many municipalities across the country, where such systems are chronically full and social-housing waitlists are years-long. The latest was an Ontario Superior Court ruling from earlier this year in a lawsuit filed against the Regional Municipality of Waterloo, while a similar ruling in British Columbia set that precedent in the province more than a decade ago.
“Encampments will be a reality for a while,” London Mayor Josh Morgan said in a recent interview. “We all may be taking slightly different approaches, but … I think everybody is trying to struggle to find the best practices to manage through a situation that no one thinks is ideal.”
London city council voted last week to dispatch disaster-relief-style “service depots” to local tent encampments, in order to bring support – such as food and water, showers or bathrooms, garbage removal, harm-reduction supplies and social services – directly to those who need them.
Mr. Morgan said the long-term goal is to create permanent hubs, where people can access wrap-around services in a single accessible location. But in the meantime, with a chronically full shelter system and a lack of affordable housing, they must focus on short-term solutions.
He said the city is trying to make the encampments “as successful as possible while we transition away from them.”
Such approaches have differed city to city. In Barrie, Ont., for example, city council was set to vote last month on controversial bylaw amendments that would have made it illegal to provide food, water, money, or tents to homeless people in public spaces in response to what the mayor described as “numerous complaints” from residents about safety issues in parks. Council ultimately shelved the idea in the face of widespread criticism, and after a local outreach group agreed to move its operations from one waterfront parking lot.
In Abbotsford, the city has responded to a contentious encampment by announcing plans to replace it with a temporary shelter facility at the same location. Mayor Ross Siemens, in a joint announcement with BC Housing earlier this month, said $4-million would be used to build a temporary 50-bed facility at a site known as Camp Lonzo, a stretch of provincial land off the Trans-Canada Highway, once earmarked for a park-and-ride lot, where as many as 100 people were living at one point during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr. Siemens said the bulk of the money would go toward purchasing trailers, each of which will house a number of beds on the lot.
“I wouldn’t call it good news. I think it’s positive news – because it’s never good news when people are this desperate,” he said in an interview.
In mid-June, he said there were 15 or so people currently living at the camp, and that they had been told to vacate by the end of the month so that construction can begin. The province has said temporary accommodations would be provided in the meantime.
“We want to do this as humanely and respectfully as possible, but realizing that long-term … how does a just society allow people that are struggling to live on the side of the road, in that type of condition?” Mr. Siemens said.
Ultimately, he acknowledged that this is a temporary solution. The trailers are expected to be in place for 18 months until the city identifies a more permanent shelter location. And even then, shelters only provide temporary accommodations. Abbotsford’s existing shelter, which has 40 beds, is slated to be replaced with a permanent supportive housing facility, but Mr. Siemens acknowledged that construction could take years.
In Hamilton, where more than 1,615 people were counted as being homeless as of the most recent count, councillors rejected a proposal earlier this year that would have placed limits on the location and size of its encampments. The city held town halls – one of which drew more than 1,000 people to the downtown convention centre – and launched an online survey to gauge support for sanctioned encampment zones, before a revised protocol is brought back to council in August.
“I just believe we need to start somewhere,” Mayor Andrea Horwath said of her vote to support the initial protocol. “Nothing is perfect, and that’s what my colleagues around the country are learning.”
In Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown Mayor Philip Brown said his city is similarly planning to set up a task force to determine how best to address encampments, where an extra 50-bed shelter had to be added earlier this year.
Mr. Brown acknowledged that the long-term solution requires more public and co-operative housing, but stressed the need for short-term action. One of the examples Charlottetown is looking to, he said, is Halifax, where designated areas have been established for tents. While his city previously had an informally sanctioned location on the local event grounds, he said it was ultimately dismantled after concerns about fires.
He said homelessness has been on the rise on the island as the COVID-19 pandemic compounded mental-health and addictions issues, and as rent prices continues to rise.
“It’s all being stretched to the limit,” he said of the island’s social-services capacity. “The gulf between the haves and have nots is just getting wider and wider.”