City in talks to move homeless people out of tents in 2 parks as nearby residents say they feel unsafe
Residents are fed up, mayor says tents can't stay, outreach worker says people have nowhere to go
City officials are in talks to move homeless people out of tents in two downtown parks and into hotel rooms as nearby residents say the encampment is encroaching on their green space and has made them feel unsafe.
Toronto Mayor John Tory says senior officials have been making "concerted efforts" for some time to rehouse people living in tents east of Yonge Street, in George Hislop Park, between Isabella Street and Charles Street East, and nearby Norman Jewison Park, between Isabella Street and Gloucester Street.
Roughly 40 tents have been set up in the two parks and they are seen as one encampment. The tents are near Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, a Christian charity that seeks to provide community for marginalized people.
"I don't find the current situation to be satisfactory," Tory said in a telephone interview with CBC Toronto on Saturday. "I have met with representatives of the residents and some of the businesses in the area. The fact is, we are talking about a public park."
Tory said the talks include representatives from Sanctuary but the city will only try to reach an agreement for so long before it will have to take action.
"Our policy says, we give notice, we make those efforts, but those encampments can't continue to be in public parks indefinitely."
Residents say situation 'truly overwhelming'
Residents in nearby apartment buildings say they are concerned about the encampment and have circulated a petition in the neighbourhood addressed to the mayor, premier, local MPP, councillor, and prime minister. They say residents are afraid to walk in the area and have been subjected to insults and threats, have witnessed drug use, seen needles scattered around and there has been vandalism.
They say the encampment has generated much garbage and people have been urinating in public places. Also, they say the lack of green space means children have no place in which to play.
Tory said some businesses that could have reopened have remained closed because of the encampment.
The residents also say the city has not been listening to them. Emails and calls have been made to the councillor and mayor and they say there has been little acknowledgement.
"We have tried everything, emailing, phone calls. We've been taking turns," Margarita Villarroel, a resident who lives in a building on Isabella Street, said on Saturday.
Villarroel said the first tents appeared about 10 weeks ago. The residents have been meeting weekly since June to discuss the encampment. The drug use is particularly disturbing, she said.
"It's truly overwhelming," she said. "The situation even too is worse at night. The screaming and yelling and chasing is really, really bad."
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She said many seniors are afraid to use bank machines. Some residents have reported being chased. Not all the buildings in the area have their own security, she added.
Villarroel said she believes everyone in the tents should be moved all at once into housing where there are harm reduction services.
"The amount of garbage is so unhealthy for anybody," Villarroel added.
On Friday, June 19, Toronto police raided a tent in George Hislop Park and seized 76 grams of crystal meth, 16 grams of fentanyl and more than $950 in cash. Officers charged three people in the park with drug trafficking. Police allege that drugs were being sold from a tent.
'A tent is better than no tent'
Greg Cook, an outreach worker at Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, said offers from the city to rehouse people now living in the park are welcome. He noted that Toronto's Streets to Homes program workers moved 36 people from George Hislop Park to temporary apartments in early May.
"Our position is always we want the best for people who don't have housing," Cook said. "We want people to be safe and to have access to basic necessities, such as food and bathrooms. Our position is that we need to support people so that they can stay alive."
About 1,000 to 2,000 people sleeping outdoors in Toronto
Encampments have appeared in nearly 10 downtown parks because people have no other options, he said. Moss Park has about 50 tents. An estimated 1,000 to 2,000 people are sleeping outdoors in Toronto because there is no shelter space for them. There are 700 to 1,000 fewer shelter beds because of physical distancing requirements due to COVID-19.
Sanctuary has handed out more 400 tents since November 2019 because Cook said people need places to live.
"A tent is better than no tent," he said.
Cook said George Hislop Park is not Sanctuary's property and the charity is not in a position to guarantee that tents will not reappear there.
"I don't understand even the framing that it's somehow our responsibility or our say around the park. We want people to be safe obviously and a park is better than an isolated spot where people are more likely to be harmed and where they are more likely not to get support," he said.
"We are basically using every tool we can to make sure we are able to support people who don't have housing and who are poor and who need support," he said. "Often we get framed as the problem when we're just trying to support people who don't have the income to live in Toronto."
Governments are not building enough rent-geared-to-income housing, he added.
As for the residents, he said it's important for them to realize some of the people in the tents are in their early 20s and are trying to figure how to survive in the city. Homelessness results when rents skyrocket, wealthy people are not taxed heavily, governments pass austerity budgets and developers take over governments, he said.
"I encourage the residents to think about why this is happening," he said.
Councillor admits there is no instant solution
According to Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, who represents Ward 13, Toronto Centre, the city wants a guarantee from Sanctuary that tents will not reappear in the parks and the charity will not encourage new people to move in, but she acknowledged that there is no instant solution.
There are anywhere from more than a dozen to as many as 60 encampments in Toronto, she said.
Wong-Tam said rapidly rehousing people from the two parks is a priority. City staff have done site visits and Deputy City Manager Tracey Cook has indicated that the Sanctuary encampment should be one of the next ones rapidly housed. Wong-Tam estimates up to 70 people need housing.
She said the city could house the people in a former hotel, but there would have to be shelter support staff, case workers, maintenance and catering contracts. She said city staff are still working with Sanctuary leadership to ensure another encampment doesn't appear.
"Some of the residents want an instant solution from the city. I think it's important for us to recognize that homelessness is a crisis and not something that is going to be solved entirely by the city of Toronto on its own, especially not in the light of a global pandemic," Wong-Tam said in an interview with CBC Toronto on Saturday.
"As the local councillor, I am very worried about the public safety of those who are actually living in the encampment as well as those who are in the neighbourhood surrounding the encampment because of the violence that people have been subjected to," she said.
"It's been extremely stressful for everyone in the neighbourhood. The social conditions and difficulties are out in plain sight," Wong-Tam said.
She said the people in the park need to be indoors with access to regular meals, bathrooms and medical attention. Some require mental health treatment, while others require addiction recovery programs. "As long as they are out on the street, they are going to be suffering," she said.
Tory agreed that there's no point in rehousing people if tents are going to reappear.
Sanctuary, for its part, said it is not responsible for poverty in the city and it believes the city is blaming the charity for homelessness.
As for the mayor, Tory said he knows the residents are upset.
"We are making an effort to do it as quickly as possible," Tory said.
"I would say we're working very hard on it. We've been trying very hard to talk to the residents. We've been talking to Sanctuary. The progress has been slower than I think anyone would like, in terms of making sure that we can have reasonable, acceptable options for housing put in front of people and to get the full co-operation of everyone involved," he added.
The mayor says he has a message for residents: "I understand their frustration. I have heard their message. I have heard their anxieties and their fears. We are going to work hard to try and resolve it in the normal way if we can."
With files from Kelda Yuen