Homelessness During a Pandemic in Toronto: A Call for a Unified Policy Response Across Canada
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On Saturday, June 12th, Toronto issued trespass notices to hundreds of residents living in homeless encampments across the city, with a warning of moving out or facing a fine of up to 100,000 dollars if convicted.

The City of Toronto stated that efforts are being put into re-homing those living outside and redirecting them to shelters, leased apartments and hotel homing programs, however resistance remains an obstacle, as residents and community members band together against law enforcement and forcibly pushing people out of these encampments.

When the pandemic hit, people in shelters were hit hard as 11 shelters across Toronto were experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks. The more contagious variants were also found “in several shelters, with 79 people testing positive for one,” Toronto Public Health said. Many residents were forced to leave these shelters in fear of contracting the disease and ended up in encampments throughout the Greater Toronto Area as a way to have shelter and self-isolate.

Homelessness is a growing and urgent concern in Toronto. When the COVID pandemic hit, health along with social inequities was significantly apparent, and many residents left the shelters for encampments to escape the growing COVID numbers. This essentially worked as their saving grace, as they found more serenity in these encampments.

In research done by the Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network (WNHHN) and research from the Community University Policy Alliance on Women’s Complex Homelessness at McMaster University, they reported that women faced many pressures arising from the stay-at-home-order to the increased challenges associated with living in these developing encampments.

They observed that Covid-19 deteriorated a bad situation including a general lack of safe, reasonable and appropriate housing, supportive programs and emergency shelter programs for women and girls in Canada—particularly in areas with high prevalence of gender-based violence.
For example, in June 2021 shelters were reported to have tripled in violence making encampments much safer.

While the Canadian Press reported a significant rise in violent incidents in Toronto’s shelter system over the last five years, the city still stands firm in its beliefs that shelters are the safest option. Previous residents of these shelters, like Jimmy Pudjunas, have a different story to share. His experiences with violence in these shelters, deteriorated his mental health, adding that the peace he experiences in these homeless encampments has made him feel at home.

In the wake of the pandemic, a lot of residents in encampments had a reprieve including programs that supported moratoriums on evictions, but this was short-lived. In the months of June and July 2021, the City of Toronto embarked on a mission to dismantle encampments in the city—including Trinity-Bellwoods Park Lamport Stadium—amidst heavy police presence and allegations of heavy-handedness and arrests of residents who resisted pulling their structures down.

While the Mayor of Toronto, John Tory, described encampment as unsafe, and defended the clearing as ‘reasonable’, ‘firm’ and ‘compassionate’ and necessary—calling on residents to take advantage of the city’s “safe” housing program, homeless rights advocate and community organizations are calling for the mayor’s resignation.

In spite of the recommendations—including human rights-based approach to encampments in a pandemic—contained in a National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada and authored by the UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Adequate Housing, Canada stands accused for failing to implement a unified policy response across Canada to put a moratorium on dismantling encampments.

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