Toronto’s new encampment strategy puts focus on safety, smaller shelters

A shelter made of blankets is shown on Gerrard Street East in East Toronto in this Beach Metro Community News file photo from 2023. The shelter of blankets is no longer there.

By AMARACHI AMADIKE

The City of Toronto recently released a new encampment strategy and an updated version of its Interdivisional Protocol for Encampments (IDP) after receiving recommendations from Ombudsman Kwame Addo.

The city said it has successfully completed 28 of the 31 recommendations put forward by the Ombudsman “with work ongoing to address the remaining three recommendations.”

Following a 2021 investigation into how the City of Toronto handled encampment evacuations at Trinity Bellwoods Park, Alexandra Park, and Lamport Stadium that summer, the Ombudsman said the city “chose expediency over the needs of the individual” which in turn caused confusion and harm.

Addo suggested an approach similar to the one used at Allan Gardens and Dufferin Grove Park where encampment residents were provided with comprehensive support such as mental health and social services.

“The city is responsible for treating its residents fairly, and has a particularly high duty of care towards its most vulnerable, including people experiencing homelessness,” stated the Ombudsman’s report.

Over the past couple years, it appears city staff have been actively working on the Ombudsman’s suggestions.

Along with a willingness to approach encampment enforcement in a more humane manner, the city said that it is exploring new service models which aim to “lower barriers to indoor spaces such as respite sites and move toward smaller shelters to increase safety and stability.”

“I’m positive that (the City of Toronto) has learnt a lot,” said Haydar Shouly, the Director of Shelter & Respite Services at Dixon Hall. “I know that the encampments offer more than we had in 2020 and 2021.”

Shouly told Beach Metro Community News that there has been an increase in programs and services available to people residing in encampments.

The Ombudsman’s investigation included a review of over 11,000 city documents, 4,600 of those being staff emails.

Its conclusion was that the city, which lacked “a clear definition of engagement” with the homeless community, failed to honour its pledge to a human rights approach due to a broken relationship with community groups that deal with homelessness.

This need for reconciliation, along with a suggestion that the city find a way to report personal data in the aggregate for purposes of planning and anticipating needs, are the only recommendations that are still ongoing from the report.

“That’s an important piece, reaching out to people who can facilitate access to resources like shelter, respites or housing,” said Shouly. “The idea is to prepare clients in encampments for housing. Once you have these pieces ready then if you get a housing offer, it’s easy to move them.”

In 2023, the City of Toronto reported that outreach staff visited encampments 5,268 times in an effort to mend the relationship with the homeless community and its advocates.

As a result, 880 people have been referred from encampments into the shelter system with 155 more relocating into permanent housing, the city said.

Shouly reiterated this, confirming that 15 clients were referred to Dixon Hall from encampments in Allan Gardens.

As a result of increased outreach since the time of the Ombudsman’s report when there were 370 encampments spread across 58 locations in Toronto, city staff said that progress is being made with reports of 256 encampments at 131 city owned properties as of May 5.

“I think that the city should build upon that work,” said Shouly. “(They should) support clients where they’re at, dedicating shelter and housing opportunities for people staying in encampments.”

With city leaders claiming that the 2021 clearing of encampments was an emergency due to public safety issues, the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) was tasked with quickly ridding parks of homeless people.

However, giving this task to OEM proved a gross miscalculation on the city’s part as this division had no prior experience clearing encampments nor did its employees have any expertise in moving people from encampments to shelters or permanent housing, a vital aspect of an encampment strategy.

“There was also no evidence to suggest that encampments were in fact an emergency requiring such an urgent level of response,” stated the Ombudsman’s report.

In a March 2023 response to the report, the city maintained that its focus was on “making homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring.”

Although the city’s new approach includes plans to increase permanent housing opportunities so that more people from encampments can be offered indoor spaces at shelters, many of the individuals experiencing homelessness are opposed to living in shelters due to perceived safety concerns.

“People come (to shelters) with a lot of issues and complicated realities that they have and in order to support them at shelters, we need to have space,” said Shouly.

Shouly approved of the city’s plans to work around this by providing smaller shelters which he said are “easier to manage” and would create more space for people considering a lack of space is a major cause of frustration that leads to violent outbursts and tension at shelters.

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) Shelter Safety Study, there was a 283 per cent increase in shelter violence between 2011 and 2021. This was enhanced during the pandemic due to overcrowding at shelters, a trend that has remained unchanged ever since.

Other factors highlighted by the CAMH study which contributed to this increase in violence were the winter season, unmet needs at shelters, unsupportive staff, and “shelter policies that limit privacy and control.”

To tackle this growing issue, the new Interdivisional Protocol for Encampments will enhance shelter safety by developing a Shelter Safety Action Plan that takes into account some of CAMH’s recommendations.

Following a presentation of the city’s Encampment Approach and Strategy report to the Economic and Community Development Committee on May 29, Toronto Council ordered the Toronto Shelter and Support Services (TSSS) to report back through the 2025 budget process on the costs for “up to three concurrent 24/7 Community Safety Teams for large encampments.”

Staff will also report back on costs of increasing shelter and respite capacity across Toronto, “including temporary modular and micro-shelter options” that can accommodate all current encampment residents.

 


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