Advocates pen letter to Mayor Tory, urging him to find 'a better way' to deal with homelessness

Homeless advocates are calling on Mayor John Tory to end the use of force against encampments in city parks and to adopt a more compassionate approach in response to unhoused people in Toronto.

Actions by city in Trinity Bellwoods on June 22 must not be repeated, letter warns

Encampment supporters defend a group of tents while Toronto police enforce an eviction order in Trinity Bellwoods Park on June 22. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Homeless advocates are calling on Mayor John Tory to end the use of force against encampments in city parks and to adopt a more compassionate approach in response to unhoused people in Toronto.

In a letter titled "A Path Forward," signed by more than 200 organizations, community leaders, academics, artists and musicians, the advocates ask Tory to put the letter on the agenda of Wednesday's city council meeting and to adopt its 15 recommendations.

And they say the standoff at Trinity Bellwoods Park on June 22, in which dozens of police officers, city workers and private security guards used force to clear encampment residents there, must not be repeated. Such an approach has no place in a civil society, the advocates say.

"A tent in a park is no one's first option, and we understand that parks cannot be a permanent housing solution. However, the forcible removal of encampment residents must end," the letter reads.

"This inflicts further trauma on already vulnerable Torontonians and does not address the issues you are trying to solve. This approach just relocates people to another park, underneath a bridge, or, worse, back to an unsafe living situation that led them to a tent in the first place," the advocates continue.

"We believe there is a better way."

The advocates urge Tory to commit to what they call a "human rights compliant approach" toward encampment residents and homelessness. The letter comes at a time when many people experiencing homelessness have refused to enter the city's crowded indoor shelter system during the pandemic because they fear they'll contract COVID-19. 

Those who have signed the letter include more than 60 organizations, including Inner City Health Associates, The Neighbourhood Group Community Services and the Green Party of Ontario, more than 40 community leaders, including former mayor John Sewell and former councillor Roger Hollander, and more than 100 artists and musicians, including Serena Ryder and members of Broken Social Scene.

Physicians, including Dr. Andrew Boozary, Dr. Adriana Di Stefano, Dr. Naheed Dosani and Dr. Nathan Stall, have also signed the letter. 

Police officers on horses are seen in Trinity Bellwood Parks on June 22 when the city evicted encampment residents living there. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

For its part, the city has said repeatedly that it considers encampments to be unsafe and unlawful, saying there have been fires, and encampments lack access to water and sanitation. Under Toronto's parks bylaw and street-use bylaw, people are not allowed to erect structures on city property.

Before it cleared the encampment at Trinity Bellwoods, the city issued notices under Ontario's Trespass to Property Act to residents living in tents and tiny makeshift shelters in the park.

The city has also issued such notices to encampments at Lamport Stadium, Moss Park and Alexandra Park, but officials have not indicated when the city will clear the next encampment.

City spokesperson Brad Ross has said: "When we do enforce the next trespass notice in a park, we remain incredibly hopeful that this will happen peacefully."

Doug Johnson Hatlem, street pastor with Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, has said in response: "It's high time for the city to come to the table in good faith to negotiate with those who have good reason not to use shelters or for whom there is no shelter space."

According to the city's Daily Shelter & Overnight Service Usage webpage, a total of 6,298 people used shelter programs in Toronto on Monday, July 11.