Encampments in public parks must go

They’re terribly unsafe for the occupants, and bad for neighbourhoods.  In the weeks leading up to the removal of an encampment every effort is made to encourage the occupants to choose shelter housing – often in private rooms – with support staff, fresh meals, and cleaning.

Many Councillors claim that the City has made zero effort to remove occupants from encampments in a safe and respectful manner. These claims are incorrect. Please see below for a letter from Chris Murray, the City Manager, on the City’s multiple efforts to ensure the safety of encampment occupants:

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Sent: July 19, 2021

Dear Mayor Tory and Members of Council,

I am writing to you today to provide an update on the City’s continuing efforts to provide services to people experiencing homelessness.

As you’ll recall, on June 12, the City issued trespass notices at four large encampment sites: Trinity Bellwoods Park, Lamport Stadium, Moss Park and Alexandra Park, notifying encamped individuals that they should comply with all applicable City by-laws.

Currently, an estimated 60 to 70 people are staying in encampments at Lamport Stadium, Moss Park and Alexandra Park, with far more tents and makeshift structures (more than 130) in those encampments than there are people.

On June 22, after several months of engagement with encampment occupants to encourage them to come inside where they have access to meals, laundry, medical and social supports, and a housing worker, the City successfully referred 14 people staying at the encampment at Trinity Bellwoods Park to a shelter or hotel program.

The Toronto Police Service was present to ensure the safety of everyone — encampment occupants, City staff and anyone else who may have been at the park that day. We remain focused on providing a human services response to encampments by way of peaceful, voluntary referrals for people sleeping outdoors into safer, inside space.

I appreciate this is an issue and approach that not everyone will agree on, but I want to be clear that encampments are unsafe, unhealthy and illegal. It is my responsibility, as City Manager, that we face this issue head on with offers of safe, inside spaces and the myriad supports offered, including access to a housing worker, while ensuring our parks are safe and accessible for everyone.

Staff are continually reviewing operational plans of encampment clearings to provide the highest level of service to encampment occupants, while ensuring their safety, the safety of City staff, and anyone else who may attend.

Approximately 60 structures, including tents and wooden sheds, were removed from Trinity Bellwoods Park last month. Fencing was erected by the City to protect City crews and encampment occupants, as well as to allow crews to safely remove debris and begin the task of restoring and repairing the park grounds for general public use.

Belongings and valuables that people staying in the encampment were unable to take with them were safely stored by the City for up to 30 days. Occupants were able to take two bags with them if going to a shelter or hotel.

Approximately 17,000 kilograms of debris were cleared from the park, including a large generator, knives, propane tanks, and thousands of discarded needles.

Vaccine efforts

All shelter locations have had at least one vaccine clinic offered on-site. To date, more than 16,500 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered to people experiencing homelessness and who are precariously housed, as well as staff working in the homelessness and housing sector through on-site clinics in the shelter system, or through a mobile clinic. As of July 16, 61 per cent of people staying in the City’s shelter system that week had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 41 per cent of people staying in the City’s shelter system that week received the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The City launched a new mobile vaccine peer ambassador program led by The Neighbourhood Group working closely with the Toronto Shelter Network, Toronto Public Health, Ontario Health Teams, Inner City Health Associates and other health sector partners to address vaccine hesitancy and increase vaccination rates for people experiencing homelessness. Peer ambassadors are visiting shelter sites with identified lower vaccine uptake and aligning their visits with the Enhanced Mobile Operations clinics.

COVID-19 safety in shelters

The City, of course, is committed to decreasing the risk of outbreaks in the shelter system and continues to provide enhanced supports to ensure immunization and IPAC measures – already established in these settings – are being followed and, where necessary, improved upon.

I am pleased to tell you that there are no confirmed outbreaks within the City’s shelter system in the last five weeks.

The City is also piloting a rapid antigen testing program at priority sites for new admissions, including sites that offer spaces to people living outside and in encampments. Rapid antigen testing, which provides a screening result within fifteen minutes, is another important step the City is taking to support and protect people in the shelter system during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Restoring parks                                                                                           

Parks where encampments are situated are only restored once everyone has been offered safer, inside space, and notice has been provided with time to go through belongings. Throughout the pandemic, staff have continued to attend encampments to clear debris from the sites.

The grass at Trinity Bellwoods Park where encampments were situated has been reseeded and fencing is expected to be removed in the coming days.

Outreach and supports

City and partner agency outreach staff continue to offer people experiencing homelessness staying at these sites options to move inside, with their belongings, to available space in a shelter or hotel program with meals and access to showers and laundry, harm reduction, physical and mental health supports, and connection to a housing worker to develop a housing plan.

Space in shelters

There are more than 6,000 shelter spaces in the city today and there remains space today in the shelter system and hotel program for people staying in encampments who accept offers of safe inside space.

City’s interdivisional response

The City has an interdivisional response to encampments that is being coordinated by the Office of Emergency Management. The City’s objective is to ensure that people experiencing homelessness feel comfortable accepting offers of safe, inside space with supports and referrals to permanent housing, through COVID-19 vaccination efforts, an increased focus on infection and prevention control (IPAC) measures in the shelter system, and a pilot COVID-19 rapid testing program for new admissions.

Referrals to safe, inside space

The City has referred more than 1,770 people staying in encampments to safe, inside space since April 2020. Since last spring, the City has referred more than 780 people from the four major encampments – Trinity Bellwoods Park, Alexandra Park, Lamport Stadium and Moss Park. Since June 15, 108 people staying in encampments have been referred to safe inside space, including eight people this past week.

Since July 2020, City and partner agency staff have engaged more than 20,000 times with people living outside, including those staying in encampments. Since April 2020, the City has helped almost 5,800 people experiencing homelessness move from the shelter system into permanent housing. Since the start of 2020, Streets to Homes and partners have supported approximately 430 people living outdoors to move into permanent housing.

As part of the City’s response to COVID-19, the City of Toronto opened more than 25 new temporary sites to create physical distancing in the shelter system and provide space for people to move indoors from encampments, providing around 2,600 spaces in new temporary shelters and hotel programs. This is in addition to 75 base shelter sites.

Harm reduction toolkit in shelters

To help save lives and reduce overdoses in the homeless population, the City recently launched a comprehensive toolkit of harm reduction resources for shelters to provide expanded support for overdose prevention. The toolkit will help equip shelter operators, who have been at the frontline of the overdose crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic response, to implement life-saving measures and support Toronto residents who are affected by the opioid poisoning crisis.

Health and safety in encampments

Encampments contravene several chapters of the Municipal Code. As outlined in last month’s staff report to Council, encampments are not a solution to homelessness. The health outcomes for people who stay outside are complex and serious. Individuals living in encampments are also at risk of contracting COVID-19.

The risk of fires in encampments is also high. There have been 129 fire incidents in encampments so far this year, including five in the last 10 days. The risk of serious injury or death to occupants of encampments, as well as to first responders and the public, as a result of fire, is serious. So far this year, Toronto Paramedic Services, TFS and Toronto Police Service have collectively responded to 117 emergency calls to the encampment in Moss Park alone.

Safe and accessible green space for all

The City’s response to encampments takes into consideration the health and well-being of those living outside and the broader community needs, including access to green space for safe outdoor recreation and exercise during the pandemic, and summer parks programming and permitting requirements including for summer camps. Unfortunately, the summer day camp scheduled at Alexandra Park had to be cancelled this year because of the inaccessibility of the park due to the encampment.

Affordable and supportive housing

Since mid-December 2020, the City has opened 244 new affordable and supportive homes, including 100 modular homes. Currently, there are 82 projects in the City’s affordable rental development pipeline, which will create 10,676 new permanently affordable rental homes once completed. Over the next 12 months, the City is aiming to make at least 1,248 new permanent affordable and supportive housing opportunities ready for occupancy. This includes 798 net new affordable and supportive rental homes under the HousingTO action plan.

To this end, over the last several months the City has announced nine new supportive housing projects consisting of more than 700 new homes across the city. The new housing will be developed through acquisition and renovation of existing properties or modular construction on City-owned or controlled lands. A map and information is available online: https://www.toronto.ca/community-people/housing-shelter/affordable-housing-developments/

Bringing people inside means there are fewer people experiencing homelessness living outdoors and exposed to higher risks of health and safety. Supportive housing offers a warm, safe place to call home; the necessities of life such as food, washrooms, and laundry; and the opportunity for strengthened community connections.

Staff will continue to work diligently and compassionately with those experiencing homelessness to accept safe, indoor space with access to the critical supports they require. At the same time, City parks must also be safe and accessible to all residents of Toronto, and I remain hopeful that we will restore our parks while also helping as many people who are willing to accept the City’s offers of support.

 

Thank you,

Chris Murray

City Manager