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'Criminalization of homelessness': Churchyard encampment remains after City eviction deadline passes

The 14-day notice to vacate an encampment outside a downtown Toronto church has passed — but instead of people packing up and leaving, a defiant demonstration was held on Thursday, organized by the reverend of the church.

“No one should have to sleep in a tent in a churchyard, we need good, safe decent indoor accommodations,” Reverend Maggie Helwig of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields Church told CTV News Toronto Thursday.

“When ‘dwelling in street’ is considered an offence for people who have nowhere else to dwell, I think there couldn’t be a clearer statement of the criminalization of homelessness,” Helwig said.

The trespass notice issued to the encampment two weeks ago by the City suggested the encampment was violating bylaws, committing infractions for dwelling in the street and obstruction.

It instructed the occupants of the encampment to vacate in 14 days. After that, the city warned they would enforce the notice by removing the tents.

The churchyard is partially a city right-of-way.

“We know we have a huge housing crisis in the city and we know the Novotel project is closing, so there are more people on the streets,” Bishop Andrew Asbil of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto told CTV News Toronto. “We have a duty to be present, to provide the care because they are here.

Some neighbours, however, say the encampment has caused issues.

Davida Walker runs Westside Montessori school two doors down from the church. She says while she wants to support people living in encampments to find permanent homes, there is also a question of safety.

“We have people defecating in our parking lot, in front of our school—needles, crack pipes, meth pipes, people fighting in different areas around the school,” she said, adding it can be hard to find a balance between respecting the space of people who don’t have permanent housing while also advocating for the safety of the children in her care.

Some occupants of the encampment dispute that claim, saying it’s not the residents leaving the mess.

When CTV News Toronto first visited the encampment in October, a man who identified himself as Danny said he routinely cleans the outskirts of the encampment of debris and says most of it is left nearby by people who don’t live in the encampment.

Toronto Mayor John Tory says there are no immediate plans to enforce the trespass notice, but he remains adamant that encampments are unsafe and illegal.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure we’re following the law,” he said on Friday, “but at the same time, continue our work – hundreds of visits will continue to happen.”

“I hope we can persuade the people that are there to seek safe indoor housing.”

Some of the encampment residents, however, say they feel unsafe in shelters, adding the respite services they are offered are only night to night—leaving them little option but to hunker down where they are, despite a precarious future.

In 2021, the City of Toronto spent at least $1.5 million clearing homeless encampments.

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