Across Canada, cities struggle to respond to growing homeless encampments

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On a patch of green space at the edge of a Charlottetown parking lot, Steve Wotton lives in a tent with his dog, Nova. The homeless shelter where he used to stay doesn’t allow pets.

“I’ve been on the streets since two days after Christmas, but I’ve been in shelters off and on,” he said.

Wotton said shelters make him anxious, and his dog is a source of support and strength when he’s feeling unwell.

“This is in the area where I should be or I kinda need to be,” he said.

“It’s tough. Some of it can be OK, but it’s very rough.”

Steve Wotton said he was forced to move into a tent in Charlottetown after he couldn’t find a shelter that would let him keep his dog. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Across Canada, city officials are trying to figure out how to deal with the increased presence of homeless encampments.

In Vancouver, city staff began the removal of tents in the city’s Downtown Eastside earlier this week.

In Halifax, the city recently ordered people living in a west-end park to leave, and have said police could be called in to clear out those who remain.

In Montreal, several encampments have been cleared out in recent years, and the city is seeking to hire a liaison officer to help dismantle others that pop up. A city spokesperson said encampments are not a safe or sustainable solution to homelessness, and pose a safety risk, too.

Short- and long-term goals

Yet advocates such as Marie-Pier Therrien, a representative for the Old Brewery Mission shelter in Montreal, argue that simply shutting encampments down doesn’t help.

“We agree with the city that the encampments are not a long-term solution to the housing crisis right now,” Therrien said. “But we would like them to lead an effort … to provide affordable housing solutions to the people in the camps, because moving them around is not going to be a long-term solution either.” 

As the former United Nations special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Leilani Farha has studied the issue closely. She said city governments cannot be left to solve the problem on their own.

“Encampments are unfortunately incredibly common across Canada, in big cities and small cities. And this has really increased since the pandemic,” she said.

“That’s because congregate settings like shelters were deemed unsafe at the beginning of the pandemic. And already people were not loving shelters. They are violent places; they are institutions.”

While more affordable housing should be the ultimate goal, she said, in the meantime officials should ensure people living in encampments have access to things like clean water.

“I expect city and other orders of government to ensure that when people are living in encampments, they can live as much of a dignified life as possible, but that the end goal should be figuring out how to get that population properly housed,” she said. 

Journalists and onlookers surround a tent in Toronto during an eviction.
People living in an encampment at Lamport Stadium, in downtown Toronto, faced eviction in July 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Councillors in Kitchener, Ont., for instance, have approved a plan to provide support to encampments while coming up with a longer-term plan.

“The way I view people living in encampments is they are human-rights holders and they’re making a claim,” Farha said.

“They’re saying, ‘Hey, I have the right to adequate housing and there is no other place for me to find that’s right to live. And so I’m going to roll out my sleeping bag or pitch my tent here because I have no other options.'”

More shelters, more housing

In Toronto, there still aren’t enough spots in shelters to accommodate those living on the streets.

On a nightly basis over the past year and a half, an average of 40 people were turned away because of a lack of beds, according to data released earlier this month.

WATCH | Former UN rapporteur says encampments highlight need for affordable housing solutions:

Encampments highlight need for affordable housing solutions, advocates say

With a tent encampment in Vancouver making headlines, some say the homeless encampments demonstrate the need for affordable housing solutions across Canada.

Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor who works with people experiencing homelessness in the city, said the lack of space in shelters needs to be urgently addressed, but more housing is the only real solution.

“The only way out of this is to build good, solid, dignified social housing at scale,” he said.

Speaking outside his tent in Charlottetown, Wotton said he’s not certain where he will live when it gets colder later this year.

“This is my first time experiencing this,” he said. “I’m still learning as I go along.”

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