On July 21, violence erupted in Toronto when police moved into public parks, such as Lamport Stadium Park, to clear homeless encampments, which resulted in arrests and the delivery of trespassing fines to individuals from those encampments and their supporters. This incident has raised conversations about how Toronto has addressed homelessness through various actions such as eviction. Although evicting people experiencing homelessness may seem advantageous in the short term, it is really a performative action that does not work to combat the social problem of homelessness.
Toronto is one of the most densely packed cities in North America with over six million residents. Around 8,700 individuals experience homelessness; however, many more could be facing ‘hidden homelessness’, where individuals live temporarily with others with no promise for accessible permanent housing. Statistics about homelessness are only helpful to a certain extent; while the federal government has performed research, it is not definitive, which could make it difficult for shelters to provide the right amount of resources such as counselling, lodging, and other forms of aid.
We should ask ourselves why we have such high levels of documented homelessness to begin with. It could signify a lack of compassion our society has for individuals who face homelessness. Instead of actively looking for ways to combat this issue at the systemic level, our communities push it aside, and those experiencing homelessness are left abandoned by society.
While it is understandable that the city would have concerns regarding individuals living in public spaces and struggling with homelessness, arresting and charging these people with fines is not the solution. Many city councillors and individuals do not believe that this approach was well suited to the situation, and they have brought other solutions to the conversation.
Eviction is only a band-aid
Evicting individuals experiencing homelessness from their encampments is only a temporary solution. At the Trinity Bellwoods Park homeless encampment, many people came to support individuals experiencing homelessness. When asked about how they felt about this situation, one ally said in an interview with the CBC, “I think the cost of this operation could do an awful lot if we directed it in a different way, such as permanent housing with support for people.”
This sentiment toward these series of evictions was shared by some community members at Lamport Stadium. About the evictions, Jake, one of the residents at the encampment, said in a CBC interview, “I wish [the city] didn’t do that and [it was] more peaceful.”
In Canada, stays at shelters for youth and adults usually last for only around 10 days, and not all of the 63 shelters in the city promise clean and safe living arrangements for people. For instance, shelters cannot protect people from physical and sexual assault, and staff members often face compassion fatigue. The pandemic has not helped the living conditions in shelters — 20 shelters in Toronto have had COVID-19 outbreaks this past April.
“We know that this claim of safe indoor space is not true,” said a community member, showing support for those in the homeless encampments in a CBC interview. The lack of a clear guarantee of health and safety in homeless shelters indicates that shelters can be dangerous environments that may leave individuals opting to live on the streets rather than in a shelter.
Focusing on more sustainable solutions
Shelters need to implement changes so that those facing homelessness can feel safer living there. Taking measures to create appropriate living conditions and helping staff with compassion fatigue are non-violent and long-lasting approaches that could help individuals and families overcome homelessness. If people felt more comfortable going to shelters and were guaranteed help, then fewer homeless encampments would be necessary in the first place.
Toronto must also work to make housing more affordable. Affordable housing can be provided by the public, private, and non-profit sectors, and the government’s measure of ‘affordable’ is that the housing costs less than 30 per cent of a household’s income before taxes. However, research done by Royal Bank of Canada Economics found that, in the last quarter of 2018, Torontonians needed to use 66.1 per cent of their household income to cover housing costs. This makes owning a home almost unattainable for the average Torotonian, and there are 1.5 million Torontonians who rent, as opposed to owning property. More efforts should be done to make housing affordable to everybody. We could take inspiration from Amsterdam’s model, where new developments for buildings must take into account low-income and moderate-income housing.
Homelessness is not just a problem; it is a crisis, and despite the work done by multiple organizations to combat the stigma surrounding homelessness, many continue to see it as nothing more than a problem brought on by the individual. In fact, homelessness can stem from multiple reasons, whether they be economic, social, personal, or health-related. The situation’s complexity should not prevent us from pursuing clear solutions based on evidence, such as improving living conditions in shelters and reforming the housing system for affordability.
Jasmin Akbari is a second-year industrial relations and human resources, digital humanities, and writing & rhetoric student at Woodsworth College.