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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

OP-ED: Making encampments obsolete should be a priority for Toronto’s next mayor

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No one wants encampments. Not the people who live in them, who would almost certainly rather live in a stable, adequate home. Not the neighbours, who want to use the parks for their intended purpose. Not any of us, who are distressed and ashamed that in our wealthy city we make and prop up systems that make people homeless.

A lot of talk has been swirling around lately about how it is time to “clear” encampments. (And just to be clear, “clear” means to evict human beings from what serves as their home and often to destroy their property.) This talk unhelpfully pits people’s legitimate desire to use public space against people’s legitimate need to create a home when they have no other place to go.

Toronto’s mayoral candidates need to address the many questions that encampments raise, and they should begin with the most obvious: clear people to where?

Shelters are not meeting the needs of people who are without a home. Many people are afraid to stay in a shelter, afraid of violence, sexual assault, or illness. Maybe they don’t want to be separated from their partner or are dealing with addictions that shelters can’t manage. The reasons are many, and they are well known. In any case, shelters in Toronto turned away 100 people every night last winter because they were already full to the brim.

These types of emergency systems are not perfect, but they are necessary. We need to continue to invest in short-term responses to the homelessness disaster. But that is not enough. We need to move beyond a humanitarian response to a human rights-based answer to encampments.

Every serious candidate for mayor should be talking about how they are going to do this. Not how they would or would not go about clearing encampments, but how they would make them unnecessary. Obsolete.

This will not be a simple task. People who are unhoused, like all of us, have complex lives. The problems they face are at once unique to each person and are shaped by the many economic and social systems that we put in place. The state of homelessness in Toronto today is the result of years of policy failures spread out among these many systems. They include failing to ensure that people have enough income to afford basic necessities, and that people can get timely physical and mental health care, and that children and youth are protected from abuse and supported in becoming independent. And it includes abdicating responsibility on housing in all sorts of ways, including leaving it almost entirely to the private market, and then feigning surprise when the market doesn’t serve people who can’t afford its product.

As a result, an estimated 1,000 people are living in encampments in Toronto. They are the most visible, but many more people are homeless and invisible, and still more are precariously housed. Further, 54 per cent of Canadians are living paycheque to paycheque, according to a survey on affordability conducted last year.

Are any of the candidates even talking about this?

They should be. They should be thinking long and hard about the duties they will take on if they win this election: the duty to protect every person in Toronto and the duty to live up to the commitment that the City has made to the human right to housing. After all, this is the job they are competing for.

They should be talking with the people who are living in encampments. They should be learning from the Ombudman’s report on how Toronto performed when “clearing” encampments in 2021, both what they did wrong, and how taking a human rights-based approach to the encampment in Dufferin Grove park produced much better results.

They should be showing voters what they will bring to this problem, beyond police and beyond shelters. They should be explaining how they will act urgently and with all the resources they can muster, to fix the many systems that are pushing people into homelessness.

Any serious candidate for mayor of this wealthy city must show us how they will ensure that every person in Toronto has an adequate place to call home, so that no one has to resort to living in a park.

Simply “clearing” encampments is not the answer. Candidates must show us how they will work to make them obsolete.

Cross-posted from the Maytree website.