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Domenico Saxida, 50, is photographed outside his tent at an encampment in Alexandra Park in Toronto, on Nov. 2, 2020.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

At Toronto’s Alexandra Park in early November, Domenico Saxida was bracing for winter after turning down shelter offered by city officials.

“I’m not going into a building where there’s ... dividers with a hundred-some beds side by side in the middle of this pandemic,” said Mr. Saxida, 50, who said he had been camping at the park for about eight months.

“Most of us refused and now all of us are hunkering down before the winter. ... Even if it takes some of us to freeze to death out here [to] get some results, so be it,” he said.

Mr. Saxida said he’d been offered a space at the Better Living Centre at Exhibition Place, where the city has set up 100 beds separated by see-through dividers as part of its winter shelter plan.

Toronto, like many other Canadian cities, has a bylaw that prohibits camping in city parks. If Mr. Saxida and others do not want to move, the city may force the issue by issuing eviction notices and sending bylaw officers to enforce them.

That pattern – encampment, clearance, repeat – has played out in several Canadian cities over the past decade. With the pandemic, the number of encampments has increased, reflecting COVID-19 precautions that reduced people’s access to drop-in centres and other services.

As the country navigates a second wave of the pandemic and cold weather sets in, municipal governments are facing calls to look beyond court orders to more lasting solutions.

To date, though, many tent-city disputes have wound up in court.

Toronto has a bylaw that prohibits camping in city parks.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

On Oct. 21, an Ontario judge dismissed an application for an injunction that would have prevented the City of Toronto from enforcing its bylaw against camping in city parks.

The applicants – 14 people living in tent camps and two advocacy groups – argued tent cities reflected a lack of housing and shelter space in the city, and that even if shelters were available, many people were avoiding them because of COVID-19.

The city opposed the application, saying it had taken steps to help bring people inside, including opening new shelters.

Justice Paul Schabas of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice sided with the city, saying in a written ruling, “The sweeping relief sought would unjustifiably tie the city’s hands in dealing with encampments that raise serious health and safety concerns for an indefinite duration, and would unduly prevent the use of parks by others.”

Advocacy groups that filed the application decried the decision, saying it was based on flawed assumptions, including that there was enough shelter space available for those who need it.

The decision left the door open for evictions. As of mid-October, the city said it had cleared 62 encampments in 2020.

In B.C., meanwhile, cities including Vancouver and Victoria have largely stopped enforcing bylaws against overnight sheltering in parks, reflecting a June guideline from B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

The guideline says that clearing encampments without providing shelter or housing immediately can cause people to scatter and break connections with service providers, increasing the potential for the spread of infectious disease.

The guideline also notes that people living in encampments have legal rights. A string of B.C. court cases dating back more than a decade have established people’s rights to take shelter in parks when there are no other options available.

A person pulls a cart at a homeless encampment at Strathcona Park in Vancouver, on Oct. 7, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Local governments say they need help to deal with some of the factors that result in people living in encampments, including the lack of affordable housing.

“The municipalities do not have the legal responsibilities, we have no budgets and we do not have the income to [house people living in tent cities] even if we wanted to and we shouldn’t. It is not the responsibility of cities to provide health care, in mental health and addiction services, and to provide housing,” said Leonard Krog, the mayor of Nanaimo and part of a recently formed Urban Mayors' Caucus in B.C. that has called on the B.C. and federal governments to spend more on housing and mental health and addiction treatment.

Housing and health researchers say tent cities reflect a national housing crunch as well as shortcomings in heath care.

“We have to recognize homelessness as a health care issue. The vast majority of people who are [labelled as] hard to house, it’s often because [they are living with] mental health and addictions,” says Dr. Jill Wiwcharuk, a Hamilton doctor who works with a group called Hamilton Social Medicine Response Team, or HAMSMaRT.

Through HAMSMaRT, Dr. Wiwcharuk and other advocates lobbied the Hamilton government to hold off on clearing tent cities during the pandemic.

After months of wrangling between city council and advocacy groups – including a temporary injunction that stopped the city from enforcing its no-camping bylaw – the two sides in October agreed on a bylaw enforcement protocol. With some exceptions, the protocol says people in encampments should move into housing or shelter within 14 days of contact with outreach workers.

In Vancouver, parks are run by a seven-member Vancouver Park Board, an elected body.

The Park Board obtained an injunction to clear a previous encampment at the city’s Oppenheimer Park in 2014 and should take the same tack for Strathcona Park, said John Coupar, one of two commissioners on the board who are part of the Non-Partisan Association municipal party.

A person wearing a face mask is seen outside a tent at a homeless encampment at Strathcona Park in Vancouver, on Oct. 7, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

(A new encampment popped up in Oppenheimer Park in the summer of 2018; it was cleared in May of 2020 after a provincial public-safety order. People then set up tents at a parking lot owned by Port Metro Vancouver. After the Port obtained an injunction in June, the encampment moved to Strathcona Park.)

The number of tents has since grown to hundreds and there have been several violent incidents, including a September assault of a young man who police said was lying on the ground for up to 12 hours before police were called.

"People in the camp seem to be afraid to contact first responders. And that’s a terrible situation in a city like Vancouver,” Mr. Coupar said.

But Commissioner John Irwin and the majority of the Park Board are against seeking an injunction.

“I think what happens, as we’ve seen with with each [encampment], it just pushes a portion of the population along to another spot. So it doesn’t really address it,” said Mr. Irwin, who is part of the COPE party.

Both Mr. Coupar and Mr. Irwin said they hope recent developments – including a $30-million emergency housing plan from the city and $51.5-million from Ottawa through the federal government’s Rapid Housing Initiative, both announced in October − will result in homes for people currently sleeping in the park.

The Rapid Housing Initiative will dedicate half of its $1-billion in total spending to 15 cities, including $203.3-million for Toronto and and $51.5-million for Vancouver.

At the encampment about a week ago, camp spokeswoman Chrissy Brett said there is still a need for the encampment, saying, “We are doing what Canada won’t.” People were using tarps and pallets to buffer their tents against rain and snow and some structures had chimneys.

The pandemic has shown governments can move quickly and all levels of government should bring the same sense of urgency to resolving encampments, argued Hamilton’s Dr. Wiwcharuk, who says she routinely treats people experiencing homelessness for frostbite and burns from trying to stay warm in the winter.

“Encampments are simply not the solution,” she said.

With a report from Fred Lum in Toronto

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