Improving the response to the homeless

The show of force by police and city officials who swept through Trinity Bellwoods Park last summer to evict homeless people was a disturbing and intimidating scene.

Now we learn that the city’s encampment protocol is outdated and the office overseeing it is under-resourced, findings that should give City Hall pause before taking further action at other homeless sites.

The findings are detailed in a report by Kwame Addo, Toronto’s ombudsman, who launched an investigation based on public complaints and concerns about the impact on some of the city’s most vulnerable residents when stadium encampments Lamport, Trinity Bellwoods and Alexandra Parks were cleared.

Such camps, illegal under municipal bylaws, are not a solution to homelessness. Not for those who live in tents and other makeshift shelters. Nor are they acceptable to city residents, who rely on parks for outdoor activities. Yet the reality is that public spaces have become makeshift homes for people who don’t see the city’s shelter system as an acceptable alternative. As the Addo report rightly notes, encampments are linked to a web of complex factors that include housing, poverty, mental and physical health, reconciliation and harm reduction. Being kicked out of these sites can mean the loss of a home, community and support system, like being kicked out of a home, the report noted.

City officials have made efforts over the past year to ensure that everyone who lives on these sites has the option of safe, healthier housing as well as mental health and addictions supports.

But the Addo report identified shortcomings in the city’s approach. For example, the ombudsman found that the city’s protocol for homeless people camping in public spaces was not consistently followed. Although it is obsolete, there were no plans to update it. The city has a “camp office” to coordinate its response. But his terms of reference were not clearly defined, there was no detailed description of his role and staff said they lacked the resources to do the job, letting it go from « crisis to crisis ».

Addo’s investigation continues. But he said it was important to present this interim report with eight recommendations to help the city respond to the encampments in a « more clear, transparent and consistent way. »

They include a detailed plan for how the city intends to update protocols, community consultations, and ensuring the camp office has the necessary resources.

In its response, the city says it will begin work on all of the recommendations, a welcome acknowledgment of the work needed to improve its response. But community advocates fear that in the meantime, the clearing of encampments could continue, no matter how weak that response.

The report is due to be discussed at this week’s city council meeting. City officials should explain how the shortcomings identified by Addo will be corrected before further action is taken.

Given the city’s housing crisis, Addo predicted that encampments would be a reality for the foreseeable future. These should not become accepted devices in the city. But the people who live there deserve to be treated with respect and fairness, and the city’s response needs to be coordinated and updated.

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