Cities across Canada are wondering how to respond to the growth of homeless settlements

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Mounted police secure the perimeter of a fence during an eviction process at a homeless camp in Toronto on June 22, 2021.

Chris Young / The Canadian Press

Drones buzzed again early Wednesday at Trinity Bellwoods Park in downtown Toronto, where large temporary fences divided the park and police maintained a substantial presence a day after protests erupted while an encampment of homeless man was removed amid a massive show of force.

The raid, which was heavily criticized by homeless advocates, drew attention to the growing problem of tent villages growing in urban parks across Canada during the pandemic as many homeless people preferred stay outside rather than risk overcrowded shelters.

While the mayor of Toronto argued that it was more compassionate to get people out of their tents than to let them live outside in the park and blamed the tensions at the scene on supporters who arrived to protest the raid , critics said the evictions from the park were needlessly brutal. .

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City police clean up homeless settlements in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park

“What we have witnessed in Trinity Bellwoods may not be the approach to take,” said local councilor Joe Cressy, chairman of the town’s board of health.

“The show of over-application we saw yesterday is eroding trust… and this erosion of trust is negatively impacting our ability to help people get out of homelessness. “

Homeless advocates, meanwhile, said other Toronto settlements are facing similar eviction notices, raising fears of further tensions in the coming weeks. Police said two people during Tuesday’s camp clean-up were charged with weapons offenses and one with assaulting an officer.

Camps present a dilemma for municipal leaders across Canada. Spurred largely by the pandemic, in which some homeless people have avoided shelters for fear of catching COVID-19 in such gathering places, tent clusters have become common sights in several cities. The response has varied, from the steady hand of the police to the softer touch of the social workers.

Toronto has essentially tried both approaches. Staff have visited the camps on several occasions, offering support and shelter options. But as the weeks went by, eviction notices loomed in the background.

“There are a lot of human rights issues at stake here: the right to life, the right to health,” said Leilani Farha, former United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing and now global director of the advocacy group. of The Shift accommodation.

“If what the city was offering was rejected by the park dwellers, rest assured that they were not offering the right thing. I can tell you that no one wants to live in parks if there is a reasonable alternative for them.

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This week, supported by police, city staff went to remove those still staying in tents at Trinity Bellwoods who would not accept the city’s offers. Large groups of officers attended the scene, including at least eight mounted police.

City spokesman Brad Ross said on Wednesday that after the raid 12 people accepted places in shelters or shelters, nine others left the park after refusing help from the town and eight other people known to live in the park could not be located. Two residents of the camp then returned to the park and accepted offers of indoor shelter.

But a problem for cities is that just removing campsites from a park doesn’t prevent people from moving to another public space.

In Montreal, the city has already used riot police twice to clear homeless camps since late last year.

“We will be playing cat and mouse throughout the summer,” Guylain Levasseur, a resident and activist at the camp, told reporters in May as a camp was destroyed. “We’ll find another place to go. We are humans who need a place to live.

A large camp with dozens of tents and makeshift shelters had already been dismantled in early December. While protesters came to support the campers, no arrests were made during either operation.

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Montreal is also entering a difficult period for many when it comes to housing. Most residential rental leases expire on July 1, and there’s usually an annual spike in homelessness as people scramble to find shelter. The city’s housing office has already received 1,000 calls for housing assistance this year, more than in 2020 and three times more than in 2019.

In British Columbia, where camps lasted nearly a year, at Strathcona Park near Chinatown in Vancouver and Beacon Hill Park in Victoria, authorities have taken a conciliatory approach.

Provincial Housing Minister David Eby has promised that those staying in the camps will be moved to housing by April 30, with a formal memorandum of understanding signed between his government and the cities concerned.

But everyone involved took a slow, less confrontational approach that relied primarily on park staff, city officials, BC Housing, and nonprofit housing agencies working alongside activist groups negotiating and managing the decamp. . There was no injunction to be enforced by the police.

In Toronto, critics said more meaningful engagement with those experiencing homelessness is needed.

Estair Van Wagner, an assistant professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, said officials needed to build trust with the residents of the encampment. Under this approach, staff would provide people with a variety of shelter options, allowing them ‘free and informed’ consent to leave – which is unlikely to happen if the police are ready and time is running out. they are forced to make a decision.

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Toronto Mayor John Tory said a review of Tuesday’s eviction orders would take place, said the heavy police presence was needed to protect park residents and city outreach staff who were there to try to persuade them to leave.

But Councilor Josh Matlow said a motion he brought to council earlier this month, rejected by the mayor and his allies, would have brought all parties together to find a way to avoid situations such as the law enforcement Tuesday.

“The city would have been at the table with the very people that the mayor says they have concerns about… it would not have ended up being a conflagration,” Mr Matlow said.

“The mayor must not believe for a minute that there will not be another camp. The problem didn’t just go away because they sent a group of police and horses to a park. They just pushed the problem under the bridge – literally – for a moment. “

With reports from Les Perreaux in Montreal and Frances Bula in Vancouver

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