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'No surprise': Outreach organization says number of encampments in Toronto doubled since last spring

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Twice as many encampments have sprung up in Toronto’s parks and green spaces compared to a year ago, new city data has found.

The latest Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR) numbers from March 15, 2024 show that there were a total of 202 encampments recorded at 72 locations across the city, compared to just 82 at 24 sites on the same day in 2023.

Currently, the largest encampment in Toronto is Clarence Square, which has 23 encampments and is currently in the process of being cleared.

Clarke Beach Park at Cherry Beach came in second with 13, while Allan Gardens has 12 tents/makeshift structures, PFR reported.

The latest numbers are approaching those seen at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when outreach workers counted 291 encampments at 45 parks on March 15, 2021.

This all comes as no surprise to Cari Kozierok, the executive director of Ve’ahavta, a local organization that supports people marginalized by poverty and hardship.

For almost 30 years, volunteers from the non-profit organization in two vans filled with food and supplies have done nightly outreach in the downtown core and in Scarborough and North York. These days, the non-profit supports about 250 to 300 people per evening.

“We’re definitely seeing more and more encampments lately,” she said during an interview with CP24 on Thursday.

Kozierok said the high cost of living along with inadequate social assistance is causing people to lose their home. She added that those who are struggling to make ends meet are finding themselves with no other option but to stay in an encampment as there aren’t shelter beds, a problem she said is exacerbated by the lack of a plan to support the influx of refugees in the GTA who are also seeking shelter.

“We’ve been predicting this for years,” Kozierok said.

“It’s straight math. There’s no surprise here.”

Long-time outreach worker Greg Cook also helps support unhoused people, including those living in encampments.

He said rent, wages, and social assistance are “not keeping pace,” which is resulting in more and more people throughout the region becoming homeless.

Cook said that it’s next to impossible for someone who has lost their housing to find a decent, affordable rental unit in today’s market.

He also noted that with not enough space in the shelter system and some staying away from it for various reasons, an increasing number of people are turning to living in encampments.

This reality is further is reflected, Cook said, in the findings of the Daily Bread’s 2023 Who’s Hungry report, which showed that the number of food bank visits doubled year over year.

“It’s either you pay rent or you have enough food to eat,” he said, adding at some point both could run out.

Among other things, more affordable housing options along with increased social assistance are what’s needed to get a handle on this crisis, said Cook, who noted that the city’s latest encampment numbers are underreported as a number of sites he’s aware of were not included on the list.

City of Toronto spokesperson Elise von Scheel called encampments a “symptom of the housing affordability crisis, shelter demand that exceeds availability, increasing costs of living, inadequate income supports, and other social crises such as the drug toxicity and mental health crisis.”

She said that city staff from across multiple divisions are working together to help those living in tents in parks access services, including shelter and housing.

Outreach partners also visit larger encampment sites daily to offer supports, housing referrals and health and safety services, von Scheel said. Toronto fire also attends these sites on a regular basis, she added.

“We have seen success in our approach to large encampments, which combines services, supports, clean-up and fire safety,” von Scheel said in a statement provided to CP24.com.

“There has been a significant decrease in the number of encampments in parks where this method has been deployed, such as Allan Gardens.”

According to the City of Toronto, 880 people were referred by Streets to Homes from encampments into the shelter system in 2023, while another 5,900 transitioned from the shelter system into permanent housing.

“The number of people experiencing homelessness and living in encampments has been steadily increasing in cities across Canada, and more needs to be done to address the complexities of the housing crisis,” she said.

“The City of Toronto is committed to creating permanent housing solutions, while also offering people-centred care for those experiencing sheltered and unsheltered homelessness."

The city’s Shelter & Support Services division is set to present a staff report on Toronto’s encampment strategy to the Economic and Community Development Committee on April 30.

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