Only 8% of encampment residents have made it into permanent housing since April 2020, Toronto data shows

The vast majority of people experiencing homelessness continue to be shuffled through a broken system with a severe shortage of affordable rental homes and only shelter or city-leased hotel spots available, says Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor at Sanctuary Toronto.

Encampments will continue as long as city shelters are only alternative, advocates say

People living in an encampment at Lamport Stadium before they were forcibly evicted by the city and police on July 21, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Since the city and police began forcibly evicting Toronto encampment residents from parks during the pandemic, only eight per cent have made it into permanent housing, according to the city's own data.

The vast majority continue to be shuffled through a broken system with a severe shortage of affordable rental homes and only shelter or city-leased hotel spots available, said Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor at Sanctuary Toronto.

Eventually, many return to pitching tents in parks where they feel more comfortable and safe than in overcrowded shelters, he said. The city's shelter data indicates it has 6,514 temporary spaces for more than 8,300 people actively experiencing homelessness.

"And with overcrowding comes things like violence and bedbugs and a real authoritarian atmosphere in terms of rules and regulations for many of these places," Johnson Hatlem said. "For some people, they feel like they don't really have a choice."

CBC News went to Dufferin Grove Park this past week, where roughly two dozen encampment residents are living, and spoke to two outreach volunteers, Alykhan Pabani and one who goes by the single name Gru. Both work with the Encampment Support Network and were pulling a wagon filled with ice, water, socks, coffee and other supplies, stopping by each tent offering to help in any way they could.

Alykhan Pabani, left, and Gru are outreach volunteers with the Encampment Support Network. They were handing out supplies at Dufferin Grove Park on Sept. 7, 2021 (Samantha Beattie/CBC)

Pabani said city staff have yet to post eviction notices and are coming by regularly to offer spots in shelter hotels but not permanent housing. 

He said as soon as someone accepts, the city wants their tent removed immediately.

"The priority is getting tents out of the parks, not actually housing the people," Pabani said. "If that were the case, then we would see that in the way they spend their money and invest their resources." 

Between April 2020 and Sept. 1 of this year, 1,858 encampment residents were referred to the shelter system and 88 per cent accepted spots, the city says. Nearly 730 of them continue to live in shelters or city-leased hotels, while about the same number have left.

Only 154, or eight per cent, of the former encampment residents referred to the shelter system now have permanent housing, says the city.

Meanwhile, the city estimates that as of Sept. 5, nearly 200 tents were set up in city parks, about half the number reported last December. 

City urges people to go to shelters

The city maintains living in parks is unsafe and illegal and that staff provide people experiencing homelessness with a "safe, indoor option long before any encampment is cleared," spokesperson Anthony Toderian told CBC News in an email.

He noted outreach workers have engaged with people living outdoors more than 20,000 times throughout the pandemic.

"It's important for you ... to know that the city continues to work hard to ensure people living outside know they have these options of safe, indoor accommodation and access to a housing worker to secure permanent housing," Toderian said. 

Gru, the outreach volunteer, lived in the Trinity Bellwoods encampment until March, when he took the city up on its offer of a room in the Novotel on the Esplanade.

He still lives there six months later, but not for lack of trying to find a permanent home. 

The Novotel Toronto Centre hotel at 45 The Esplanade on March 25, 2021. The City of Toronto leased the downtown hotel as a temporary homeless shelter for people living in several city encampments. (Sam Nar/CBC)

Gru said he was assigned a caseworker early on but didn't hear from that worker for the first month and a half. Once they were in touch, Gru worked on replacing his identification and filing his taxes so he could qualify for permanent housing. This summer, his caseworker found him a landlord who had a rent-geared-to-income unit available.

Gru saw the unit, met with the landlord and then never heard anything back, he said. Recently he learned there were  two other people vying for the same unit, and one of them had been chosen instead. 

"For people who are living in poverty, unhoused or underhoused, life sucks," Gru said. "You get to this point where the world kicks you while you're down and you're like, 'Yep, seems about right.'"

A more compassionate approach

Coun. Mike Layton, who represents Ward 11, University-Rosedale, said he has been urging senior city staff to take a more compassionate approach, starting with a conversation, not a directive. 

Something needs to change within the shelter system if people feel safer sleeping outside than in, especially as the cold weather approaches, Layton said. 

"To get a lasting outcome should probably be our goal, not just lowering numbers," he added. 

Layton is also calling for funding from the provincial and federal governments to build more affordable and supportive housing, which currently doesn't exist on the scale the city needs.

Mayor John Tory's office said he's continuing to work with the provincial and federal governments to ensure they deliver on their commitments for more housing, supports and addictions treatment. Hundreds of supportive housing units have been built this year alone, he said at a news conference this week.

"We are very focused on fulfilling the two responsibilities we have," the mayor told reporters.

"Look after the most vulnerable who are experiencing homelessness. But we also have to make sure we do that in a way that provides them with supports and make sure that the neighbourhoods where we have shelters are able to maintain a stable existence."

The last encampment the city cleared was at Lamport Stadium in July, when police and demonstrators came face-to-face in a violent confrontation. Officers physically removed those who wouldn't leave and arrested 26 others. Similar scenes also occurred at Trinity Bellwoods Park and Alexandra Park during the summer.

Johnson Hatlem said he thinks the reason why the city hasn't forcibly evicted people living in encampments since is because it doesn't want the bad publicity, but ultimately the goal of clearing everyone out stands. 

"They are trying a bit of a different approach, but the fact of the matter is they just don't have the housing stock or shelter space to get everybody inside," Johnson Hatlem said.

It's only a matter of time before more evictions happen, he said.

Toronto police physically removed those who wouldn't leave Lamport Stadium and arrested 26 others. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)