Signs to deter encampments in Toronto's green spaces will push the unhoused 'underground,' advocate warns

New signs in parks and green spaces across Toronto forbidding people from setting up camps overnight will make it harder for the city to help the unhoused, advocates warn.

City of Toronto has erected park signs forbidding tents, structures or after-hours use

Ceta Ramkhalawansingh posted this photo of a park sign at the University Avenue median. Since then, social media users have posted more photos of signs erected in parks and green spaces across the city. (Ceta Ramkhalawansingh/Twitter)

New signs in parks and green spaces across Toronto forbidding people from setting up camps overnight will make it harder for the city to help the unhoused, advocates warn.

The signs, which reflect current bylaws, indicate "visitors may not erect a tent or a structure" or "camp in the park," and that park hours are from 5:30 a.m. to midnight.

Ceta Ramkhalawansingh, a Toronto public servant and community activist, came across one such sign along a University Avenue median and posted a photo to Twitter, calling it "shocking."

Others have posted on social media various new signs they've found at College Park, Dufferin Grove Park and others.

"It's just overkill," said Ramkhalawansingh. "You shouldn't be imposing that kind of blanket restriction on three million people who live in the city."

The outcry over the signs comes after CBC News reported last week that Toronto plans contract private security guards to patrol some parks 24/7 to prevent a repeat of last summer, when 26 people were arrested as police and city workers evicted an encampment from Lamport Stadium park. There were also violent confrontations when unhoused people were kicked out of Trinity Bellwoods and Alexandra Park.

The city maintains encampments are unsafe, unhealthy and illegal.

But Diana Chan McNally, an advocate for unhoused people and a community worker at the Toronto Drop-In Network, doesn't think the signs are a solution.

"The signs could suggest that more broadly, any member of the public could actually be excluded or ticketed, or even arrested, if they're in these spaces after hours," she said.

Unhoused people will go 'further underground'

While the combination of signs and security might prevent encampments in the particular parks under surveillance, McNally says it will just push unhoused people farther away from the downtown core to North York or Scarborough, making it harder to find them.

"People go further underground, they go deeper into ravines, they go into more hidden spaces," she said.

"We lose people, they go missing, we're not able to communicate with them," McNally added.

Diana Chan McNally, a community worker at the Toronto Drop-In Network, says signs and security patrols in parks will only move the unhoused away from the downtown core making it harder for them to get access to support services. (CBC)

"If they're away from services, then they can overdose, get hurt, go missing. So there's actually literal harm that can arise from this strategy."

The city says the signs are in accordance with its parks bylaw, which "prohibits encroaching upon or taking possession of a park by installing a structure on park land, occupying a park for non-recreational uses; and camping, tenting, or otherwise living in parks," city spokesperson Anthony Toderian said in a statement.

"The reference to 'Park Hours 5:30 a.m. - Midnight' is a reminder that there is no overnight sleeping in parks permitted," Toderian said.

The city has ordered 380 signs and has posted 104 of them so far. Each sign costs $22 to $28 and the city has spent a total of $11,850 on signs and their installation.

The city says bylaw officers or contracted security guards will contact staff if they see people erect a tent or other structure in a park, so the city's Streets to Homes outreach workers can engage with the occupants and offer services and safe indoor accommodation.

Toderian says it reflects the city's commitment to a "housing first" approach.

While there's still no word on how much 24/7 park security will cost, McNally thinks the city could put more money into providing direct supportive services to unhoused people.

"They're not adding any value to social services directly," she said, pointing out that pushing the unhoused out of the city's core will make the job of finding them and housing them more difficult.

"In fact, you have outreach workers like Streets to Homes, whose literal job is to know where people are and on top of that actually provide those services."