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Toronto’s ombudsman says city’s approach to homeless encampments ‘outdated,’ new plan needed

City officials work to clear the Alexandra Park encampment in Toronto on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young City officials work to clear the Alexandra Park encampment in Toronto on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Toronto’s ombudsman says the city’s encampment removal protocol is “unreasonable” because it’s outdated, and a detailed plan needs to be created to replace the city’s approach.

The city’s Ombudsman Kwame Addo released an interim report on Thursday on an investigation into the handling of encampment evictions at city parks last year.

The city sent dozens of bylaw officers and uniformed police officers to remove homeless encampments at multiple parks last summer, including Trinity-Bellwoods Park, Alexandra Park, and Lamport Stadium Park.

The city said the evictions followed months of engagement with encampment residents to encourage them to accept alternate housing. City officials said they had no choice but to clear the encampments because they were unsafe and illegal.

The clearouts led to violent clashes between police and protesters and several arrests, and a significant amount of public concern was raised over the level of force used during evictions.

City officials work to clear the Alexandra Park encampment in Toronto on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

In Sept. 2021, Toronto’s ombudsman’s office launched an investigation into the evictions but its probe did not assess the conduct of Toronto police officers as this is beyond its mandate.

"The fact of the matter is this is a very important issue and the city is still clearing encampments. So we want to make sure that moving forward that the approach that the city takes dealing with encampments is something that's done on a more fair basis, and it's more transparent, and it's more accountable," Toronto Ombudsman Kwame Addo told CP24 Thursday afternoon.

"...Individuals living in these encampments are the city's most vulnerable. And so it's important that the city deals with them with respect and dignity," he added.

For its investigation, the ombudsman’s office says it conducted 50 interviews with city staff and community stakeholders, reviewed approximately 11,000 documents and spoke to 43 people who lived in encampments.

The office revealed eight recommendations that the city should act on immediately to ensure the city’s response to encampments are done in a “consistent and coordinated way, following a process that is well established, transparent, and understood by all.”

The office recommends that the city develop a detailed plan to update its outdated Interdepartmental Service Protocol for Homeless People Camping in Public Spaces (IDP).

"That document was outdated, was last updated in 2005. And we heard also from city staff, not only does it need to be updated but it doesn't adequately address the social and human rights issues that are normally associated with encampments," Addo said.

The report notes that the plan should include project milestones and timelines for completion and adequate staff resources should be allocated to the update.

Another recommendation is that the plan to update the IDP should include public consultations to receive feedback from the community.

“Groups that the City should consult with include people with lived experiences in encampments, community organizations that provide services to people who are unhoused, and internal and external stakeholders working in the fields of housing and human rights,” the report says.

The office recommends that the city make public detailed summaries of the feedback it receives from these consultations.

In addition to updating its IDP, the ombudsman’s office recommends that the city clearly define the role and mandate of the city’s Encampment Office, and assess what resources it needs to successfully carry out its duties.

The Encampment Office was created in the summer of 2020 to help coordinate the city’s response to encampments.

However, some city staff have said the office has been significantly under-resourced since day one.”

“Staff commented that the workload for a small team was “overwhelming” and that it appeared that the office was just moving from “crisis to crisis” and incapable of taking a larger, systemic view of responding to encampments because of the lack resources,” the report says.

Last year, the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) took over the city’s Encampment Office but staff have raised concerns about if this was the right move due to its “unique responsibilities,” including supporting people experiencing homelessness and enforcing encampment evictions.

Due to the complexity of the Encampment Office, the ombudsman’s office recommends that the city consider whether it stays under the direction of the OEM.

The City of Toronto has accepted the recommendations and committed to implementing all of them.

Mayor John Tory spoke about the report on Thursday while at the opening of new affortable homes in the city and reiterated that encampments are not safe living spaces and city parks should be available for everyone to enjoy.

"While we will continue to make even more efforts, as following on the recommendations of the Ombudsman, to do this better and in a way that is less disruptive, and that is even more compassionate, we will make sure that the parks are available for use by everyone. And that we make sure we have more and more projects like this (affordable housing) because this is the kind of place that someone experiencing homelessness is going to get back on their feet, get their lives back together and have a platform from which they can launch a more successful future for themselves than an encampment in a public park," he said.

The city says it will provide an update on its progress with the recommendations by the end of the year, and quarterly thereafter. Top Stories


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