Toronto chose 'speed over people' in clearing homeless encampments, ombudsman says
City of Toronto workers clear a homeless encampment at Alexandra Park on July 20, 2021. (Joanna Lavoie photo)
Published Friday, March 24, 2023 11:41AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, March 24, 2023 3:11PM EDT
The City of Toronto chose “speed over people” when it cleared homeless encampments at three downtown parks in the summer of 2021, says the city’s ombudsman.
In an 87-page report released Friday morning, Ombudsman Kwame Addo said that the city “showed significant unfairness” in the way it handled the clearing of these sites at Alexandra and Trinity Bellwoods Parks, and Lamport Stadium.
Specifically, Addo found that city was insufficient and inconsistent in its engagement with the park residents and “showed a lack of understanding about their reality.”
He also said the city was unclear in how it communicated with those living in the encampments as well as the public as it did not provide any dedicated on-site staff for residents to speak with.
“Encampments and supporting the people living in them are complex. But the City owes a particularly high duty of fairness to these residents,” he said. "Our investigation found the city displayed insufficient regard for the people it moved out of the parks. It failed to live up to its stated commitments to fairness and a human rights-based approach to housing."
The investigation led by Addo looked at how city planned the encampment clearings, engaged stakeholders, and communicated with the public.
Addo found that there was an unnecessary prioritization of urgency, which superseded the needs of those living there.
He also said that the city knew that encampment residents had “complex mental health needs,” yet failed to put plans in place to support them.
“The absence of mental health support on the day of the clearings was a serious gap and it must form a critical part of any future planning,” he said in a release.
“The city knew that people in encampments had complex mental health needs, yet they failed to include plans to address them.”
The ombudsman’s report provides 32 recommendations, including formalizing the creation of a group of city divisions with a diverse set of skills and expertise to lead its encampment response, prioritizing the needs of those living in the encampments if it is determined necessary to move them out, and creating a detailed plan outlining how it will support access to physical and mental health services for those living in encampments and engagement with residents that includes specific strategies for Indigenous communities as well as racialized and equity-deserving groups.
"While my recommendations will not solve all the challenges of encampments, it is my hope they will ensure that, from now on, the City responds to encampments and treats the people living in them with fairness, transparency, and accountability," said Addo.
“It is unrealistic to expect the City to solve the housing crisis on its own. Real solutions require the involvement of all levels of government. However, the City is responsible for treating its residents fairly, especially those experiencing housing precarity and homelessness.”
Ombudsman Toronto said it intends to monitor the city’s actions until it is satisfied that their recommendations have been successful implemented.
While Ombudsman Toronto cannot compel the city to take action, it recommends changes that aim to improve service to the public.
In a statement, the City of Toronto said it has received Addo’s final report, accepts its recommendations, and thanked all of those who contributed to it, including community advocates and people with lived experience in encampments and marginalized communities.
The city then reiterated its commitment to the “use of a people-first, client-centred approach to help connect those living in encampments with services including shelter and housing,” noting in 2022 there were roughly 1,277 referrals from Streets to Homes outreach teams to indoor spaces for those living outside. More than 1,100 of those referrals came from encampments, it said.
“This Housing-First approach has reduced the number of people living in encampments, which grew significantly in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, to pre-pandemic levels,” said the city, noting in June 2021 there were 370 encampments in 58 City greenspace locations.
According to the City of Toronto’s latest count, there are currently 75 encampments in 23 greenspaces.
The city went on to say that it wants its shared recreational spaces to be for the benefit of the community and is taking a “multi-divisional approach” to respond to the “complex health and safety risks in and around encampments, facilitate access to services including shelter and housing, removal of waste and debris, and ensure shared-use spaces are accessible to all.”
This is being done, it said, with the goal of building trusting relationships, helping address immediate health and safety needs, and finding permanent housing for those living there and in other outdoor areas.
“The city is focused on making homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring and all Toronto shelters work from a Housing First approach to ensure that shelter service delivery is premised on the idea that stable housing is the primary need for individuals or families experiencing homelessness,” it said, pointing to the more than 4,300 people who moved from the shelter system into permanent housing last year as well as the expansion of the shelter system from roughly 4,000 spaces in 2016 to about 9,000 beds today.
With homeless increasing, the city noted that support from other levels of government is key to increasing the supply of deeply affordable rental housing with supports, including those for harm reduction and mental health. Investments in homelessness prevention programs and poverty reduction measures are also needed, it said.
At this time, the City of Toronto said it is reviewing the Ombudsman’s final report and will answer additional questions when it is presented at City Council late next week.