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Instead of clearing tent dwellers out, the city has built portable toilets and washing stations, and given people resources to keep their shelters clean and safe

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Church chaplain Stefan Nichol talks with a woman living at a tent encampment by the Thames River in London, Ont., a city where rising homelessness has led civic leaders to consider a new approach.Photography by Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Like many Canadian cities, London has an encampment problem.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in the city has doubled since the pandemic. Many of them have resorted to living outdoors. They pitch their tents and hang their tarps near the banks of the broad Thames River, which flows through the heart of the southwestern Ontario community of 420,000.

As the population of tent dwellers has grown, reaching around 300, complaints have been rising. Many Londoners say the encampments are a source of crime, noise, garbage and discarded needles.

London could have responded by doing what some other cities have done and sent in police to clear away its encampments and evict their residents. Instead, it is sending in help.

Garbage collectors come down to the river to pick up trash. Firefighters come down to coach people on how to keep their campfires from getting out of control.

Charity groups deliver food, water, warm clothing and safe-drug-use supplies. The city has even set up portable toilets and washing stations near encampments.

Mayor Josh Morgan calls it a compassionate but also a pragmatic approach. Hungry people may turn to crime to get what they need. Give them food to eat and they are less likely to resort to desperate measures. Give them garbage bags and they are less likely to leave their trash strewn about.

Some Londoners are skeptical. They say that the city is normalizing the encampments. By supplying the needs of the tent dwellers, it is just making it easier for them to keep living outdoors.

Mr. Morgan dismisses that notion. He says that no one really wants to live in a damp tent by the river.

With rents soaring and city shelters full up, he says, “encampments are an unfortunate but necessary reality.”

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Mr. Nichol checks one of the tents along the Thames to see whether anyone is home. The city tries to keep encampments like this to no more than six tents each.

Near one of the encampments is a portable toilet and a needle-drop box. One resident has set up a large punching bag for exercise.
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This tent dweller is one of as many as 300 people who are living in encampments across London, which, like many cities across Ontario, has felt the pinch of rising rents and cost of living.

Many other cities are coming to the same conclusion. Hamilton is permitting clusters of as many as five tents and giving their residents access to showers and washrooms, as long as the tents are not within 100 metres of daycares, playgrounds or schools.

Halifax has designated five locations where encampments are allowed. The city collects their garbage and supplies them with water.

Vancouver cleared dozens of tents and structures from East Hastings Street in April, but other encampments persist. A court ruling in January said that tent dwellers could stay in a designated part of CRAB Park on Vancouver Harbour, though police have been removing tents in unsanctioned areas.

The ruling was one of several across the country that have put limits on encampments clearances, or “decampments.”

Toronto has eased its stand on encampments since carrying out a couple of controversial clearances in 2021, an effort that came in for harsh criticism from the city’s ombudsman in a report earlier this year. The city hasn’t cleared any for six months.

It sends outreach workers out every day to distribute blankets and water to residents, offer them inside shelter and tell them about services that might help them deal with mental illnesses or addictions. At one large encampment, in Allan Gardens in the city’s downtown east end, it has even set up a special Information and Help Centre designed to “facilitate relationship building with encampment occupants.”

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A small cooking fire burns at one encampment. Officials warn residents about fire risks.

London has gone farther than most. In July it set up four “depots,” open for 90 minutes a day, close to encampment sites. There, staff started handing out snacks, socks, soap and a host of other everyday items. They also directed visitors to help finding housing or getting addiction treatment.

To prevent sprawling tent cities from springing up, the city tries to keep encampments to six tents or less. It asks campers to keep their shelters as inconspicuous as possible, set back from bike paths or playgrounds.

It works with them to prevent fights and turf disputes, calling in police and bylaw officers only when necessary. It gets them to move their tents away from the banks of the river in springtime, when the risk of flooding is high.

The city also warns people about fire risk, a big issue in Canadian encampments. A 31-year-old woman died last spring after suffering severe burns when the tarp she was sleeping under caught fire. She was among around 250 people who have died on London’s streets over the past four years.

Leaders of the depot program say it seems to be working. Chantelle McDonald of the London Cares social-services agency says now that tent dwellers don’t have to worry about being forced to move all the time, their lives are a little more settled and they can put more effort into their welfare instead of simple survival.

They put more care into the state of their encampments, too. Some will bring their garbage to the depots for collection or make sure there is toilet paper in the portable toilets.

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An encampment resident carries a sheet of plywood to lay down on his tent floor. Tent dwellers have gotten creative to protect their shelters from the weather.

Chantelle McDonald, right, works for the London Cares social-services agency, and Greg Nash is from the London Intercommunity Health Centre. Like Mr. Nichol, they are part of an array of organizations helping the tent dwellers get the necessities of life.
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Nathan Impens was recently laid off from his job as a concrete finisher. Now, he lives in an encampment heated from inside by burning liquid hand sanitizer.

Down by the Thames, people have built elaborate structures with plywood fences, fire pits and several tarpaulins overhead to keep off the rain. Some have added insulated construction tarps to keep out the cold.

Nathan Impens, 41, a concrete finisher recently laid off from his job, has two tents in his compound, one for sleeping and one for storage. A third, smaller tent holds firewood. He heats the inside of his tent by burning liquid hand sanitizer in a metal bowl.

Gary Kirk, 54, even has a wooden dresser in his tent. A friend brought it down to his camp. Mr. Kirk, who sleeps on an army cot, is rigging up an outdoor shower, too.

With several other tents nearby, he says, “it’s starting to look like a city neighbourhood. It’s filling up.”

To Susan Stevenson, who sits on London city council, that is exactly the problem. It strikes her as defeatist to accept that large numbers of people are going to live outdoors in a prosperous Canadian city.

“Let’s not get used to that. What happens if we say it is not acceptable? This is London, Ontario, and our people don’t sleep outside in the winter and by the river. They just don’t.“

Backers concede that working to make life tolerable in outdoor encampments is hardly a solution to London’s homelessness crisis. The depot program, they say, is only a stopgap.

The city is working on more lasting solutions, such as building more affordable and supportive housing and setting up special respite hubs for those suffering from acute addictions or mental illness. The federal government’s fall fiscal update on Tuesday is expected to set aside billions for housing, including funds to help build affordable and rental units.

In the meantime, says Ms. McDonald of London Cares, “we’re trying to keep folks as well as we can and as healthy as we can – and alive.”

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