The homeless camps that have sprung up in Canadian cities during the pandemic are a knotty issue for city leaders.
The camp dwellers are some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Many suffer from addictions and mental illness. Their lives have been complicated by COVID-19. When it broke out, they fled crowded shelters to camp in urban green spaces. They deserve compassion and respect.
On the other hand, having groups of people living for months on end in public parks is not good, either for them or for the public. The parks have been getting heavy use during the pandemic, especially now that the warm weather is here. The camps are unhealthy and unsafe: Fires often break out among the tents, putting everyone at risk.
So, with the pandemic easing, cities from Vancouver to Montreal have been trying to clear urban encampments and find more suitable lodging for their residents. That, too, is a tricky matter. Whenever authorities try to remove the camps, advocates for the homeless call them callous and uncaring.
Which is exactly what happened this week in Toronto. Scores of police, city staff and private security officers descended on popular Trinity Bellwoods park in the west end of downtown. Protesters confronted them, briefly pulling down parts of a fence that officials had erected around the camp there. A police drone buzzed overhead and a team of mounted police trotted in.
Critics called the operation brutish, cruel, disgraceful and inhumane, among many other choice adjectives. Some even compared it to the massive security effort during the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010.
That vastly overstates the case. Listening to the rhetoric, you might think that police had stormed in to arrest the camp dwellers and haul them away. What actually took place is that officials approached them to say that the camp was being closed and ask whether they would accept an offer of safer housing in a shelter or hotel. Fourteen of the roughly two dozen occupants agreed.
The fences were set up to let city officials do their work without interference from the protesters who have disrupted attempts to remove other encampments. The last thing authorities wanted was a dangerous shoving match, or worse. The tactic appeared to work. Apart from a few tense moments, the operation went off smoothly, with only a handful of arrests and no reported injuries. This was no G20.
In fact, Toronto’s approach to the camps from the start has been patient and cautious. For many months the city left the camps more or less alone. When it did act, it acted with care. Far from rousting the residents, it sent officials in again and again to offer them housing. The city says they have conducted more than 20,000 such visits. As a result, says a city release, “almost 1,730 people staying in encampments have been referred to safe inside spaces since April 2020.”
The city hasn’t stopped there. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Toronto has seen what Mayor John Tory calls an “unprecedented wave of action” not just to shelter but to house the homeless, nearly doubling its spending. It has opened almost 250 new affordable and supportive housing units and built 100 units of rapidly constructed modular housing. To help shelter residents get into more secure accommodation, the city assigns each of them a housing worker. In the past year, according to city figures, close to 6,000 have moved into a permanent home.
Meanwhile, the city has improved conditions in the shelter system itself, expanding capacity, improving infection controls and stepping up testing. More than half of the shelter population has at least a first dose of vaccine. So it’s misleading to argue that the encampments must be allowed to stay because the residents have no other option but to live in a tent. There are alternatives now. No one is being tossed onto the street. Every person whose tent is removed from a city park has the opportunity to move indoors.
Of course, some will decline the offer, either because they still worry about conditions in the shelters and hotels or because they prefer to fend for themselves. The city should treat them with the utmost sympathy and forbearance. But letting them live in fragile tents in city parks indefinitely is doing them no service. Cities are right to seek a better way.
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