London

London quietly lifts ban on homeless encampments during pandemic

Throughout the pandemic, we've all been asked to stay home to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. But for the hundreds of people who live on London's streets, that's not a possibility. 

City officials say allowing camps is a 'compassionate response' in extraordinary times

A homeless encampment near the Canadian National railway line at the edge of downtown London, Ont. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Throughout the pandemic, we've all been asked to stay home to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. But for the hundreds of people who live on London's streets, that's not even a possibility. 

It's one of the reasons why the City of London quietly lifted a ban on homeless encampments since the pandemic began in March. 

Since then, people have formed two tent cities. One is along Bathurst Street, where tents and plywood shanties are clustered along the fence bordering the Canadian National Railway lands. The other is in Queens Park, a green space that rims the northern fringe of the Western Fair, where a multi-coloured mass of tents group near the back of the property. 

Under normal circumstances, both of these encampments would be dismantled on an almost daily basis, with city workers loading trucks with people's meagre possessions under the watchful eye of police.

'It almost feels like home'

The homeless encampment clustered at the south end of Queens Park, before it was taken down Tuesday. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"It almost feels like home," said a man who would only identify himself as Dan, lounging in a camping chair at the encampment in Queens Park. "Every time you move, you lose something. It's nice not to have to move every day." 

Craig Cooper, the City of London's manager of homelessness prevention, said not only does dismantling the camps pose a potential health risk, the people in those camps have few places to go.

"We have traditionally asked them to move along. We recognized it didn't make sense to move along during the pandemic," he said.

City hall has added toilets

City officials have set up toilets close to the homeless encampment on Bathurst Street, not far from the Salvation Army Centre of Hope. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Traditional gathering places such as libraries, soup kitchens and some charities have been closed by emergency provincial order when the pandemic began. The shelter system has been thinned out too, with each shelter taking in fewer clients in order to meet physical distancing protocols. 

Cooper said the city has stepped in and provided an additional 150 beds through hotel and motel rooms, but the city's 300-bed system has been 99 to 100 per cent full since the pandemic began. It means some people are left out, while others simply prefer to sleep rough.

All told, Cooper said an estimated 200 people have been sleeping rough in London during the pandemic on any given night — and because dismantling homeless camps carries certain risks, it's best to leave the camps where they are. 

In exchange for not touching the camps, the city has asked those using them to keep them clean. City officials have even provided portable toilets and garbage bins to make people's stay a little more comfortable. 

"They put up port-a-potties because what would people do otherwise?" said Trevor McClellan, the disaster services coordinator for the Salvation Army. 

Camps have given people a growing sense of community

Queens Park is one of two locations in London where city officials have lifted a ban on homeless encampments for the duration of the pandemic. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

McClellan, along with a number of relief workers have been regularly visiting both encampments to distribute food and water and connect people with services they need, such as medical attention. 

He said he's seen a difference in the people who congregate in the tent cities since the city lifted its ban on homeless encampments. 

"We see a sense of community. When I go to my house I have a sense of community, I have my neighbours, I have the folks I know and so on, we're seeing that here," McClellan said.

"Is this the best case scenario? Absolutely not, but is it working in the current situation that we're in? I think yeah, it is."

Inside the encampment at Queens Park, Dan, the resident, can sense a difference too. 

"I like to take care of people," he said. "There are some people who like to bully and can come in and take over a tent and say 'this is mine now.' We don't have that here." 

"We police ourselves," he said. "We take care of our own around here. It's a community for sure." 

While the encampments might give the people living in them a growing sense of community, city officials say they won't become a permanent fixture in London. 

"We look at cities that sanction tent cities and it only perpetuates homelessness," said Craig Cooper, the city's manager of homelessness prevention. 

"What we need to find is a roof over their heads and an encampment is not going to give them that." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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