The Toronto encampments are now out of sight. That is a problem

In a narrow gap between the soft earth of the Rosedale canyon and a concrete bridge just below Bloor Street, a 32-year-old man has lived for months in a makeshift camp.

The man, who only identified himself as John, sometimes turns to the Toronto shelter network to shower. He was once offered a place in a shelter hotel, but continued to feel that there would be a snag.

A handful of others live near John’s camp—six or seven lately, he estimates. He believes the ravine specifically attracts people who have struggled to live around other people.

As summer sets in, they’ll be among the dozens of people fighting life under Toronto’s bridges and in the parks, trails, and canyons.

A year after camps in high-profile locations such as Trinity Bellwoods Park and Lamport Stadium Park came to the forefront of public debate, the number of camps across the city has plummeted. Trinity Bellwoods is now empty of tents, but you can find makeshift structures and hung tarps in the quieter, more hidden corners of Toronto – with many surviving camps, like John’s, lying out of sight.

“I think it’s so important that people understand what’s happening,” says Dr. Stephen Hwang, a physician at St. Michael’s Hospital with a research focus on homelessness. That people still choose to live in canyons suggests that Toronto isn’t providing the help people need, he argued.

“The risk is not just that people will remain homeless on the streets, or the numbers will increase, but that we will become numb to the problem – that we no longer see it as a human tragedy, and more as just a nuisance to get rid of. ‘ said Hwang.

“Once the situation is allowed to grow, through inaction or insufficient action, people tend to lose compassion.”

Outdoor homelessness has increased here and in other cities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the city’s actions last summer to remove people from highly visible areas brought the issue into the limelight.

The city plans to keep those parks empty, with plans to hire private security to patrol West-end Bellwoods, Alexandra Park, Lamport Stadium and Dufferin Grove around the clock. Mobile teams will cycle through Moss Park and Barbara Hall Park in the east of the city.

In a statement, the city said it was committed to giving its field workers a “non-confrontational” approach to those who live outside — while emphasizing its goal of bringing people in and connecting them with resources along the way. to housing.

In all, Toronto’s parks department counted 88 citywide tents or other structures across 44 locations on May 10, compared to more than 300 in 58 locations on the same day in 2021. Transportation Services, which covers places such as the undersides of bridges in the keep an eye on it, also saw numbers fall in the past year.

But in places like the Rosedale Ravine and Don Valley Parks — and even more visible places, like Grange Park and Allen Gardens — dozens of people still live outside.

What John wants is housing – even a single room to rent – but that goal has so far proved elusive. He told the Star he had recently learned that he had been kicked off the waiting list for subsidized housing in Toronto after failing to keep his application up to date.

The night he spoke to the Star, outreach worker Doug Johnson Hatlem weaved through the bush, offering people water, snacks, clean socks, and naloxone. John asked for candles – Johnson Hatlem said he didn’t have one, but could help with a sleeping bag request.

In another tent nearby, James Marley asked Johnson Hatlem if someone could contact a housing association on his behalf. His case illustrates the complexity of homelessness; he has an apartment, but hasn’t slept there in months — not since his 10-year-old partner died last fall.

The couple had lived in the same area and since her death he hadn’t been able to bear to go back. He wanted to be transferred to another branch of the agency in a different area.

For now, he’s staying in the ravine or in a tent behind Sanctuary Toronto, a downtown church and community space where Johnson Hatlem works. “It’s not easy here,” Marley told the Star.

Founder Diana McNally has seen a shift since last year, reporting more people are staying in “underground” spaces and outside the center. “They feel less monitored,” she said.

The most prominent campground known to the city, as of May 10, is the Lower Don Parklands – with 13 known tents or structures, up from seven last year. While the number of known camps in the Rosedale Ravine dropped from 15 to five, this month there were camps in places like Lavender Creek Trail and Charles Sauriol Conservation Area where they weren’t at this time last year.

Hwang sees many reasons why someone would prefer life in a camp to a shelter. “A lot of people deal with theft or assault when they stay in shelters, and they feel safer,” he said.

While larger park camps could offer a sense of community, he said, “staying in a canyon, really, appeals to someone who really wants to be left alone and be invisible.”

And some just couldn’t reconcile death in shelters, McNally said. Last year, an average of 4.2 homeless Torontonians died each week, nearly half of them due to drug toxicity.

There are risks to outdoor living, Hwang noted: exposure to extreme cold or heat and reduced access to services in remote areas. The night Johnson Hatlem visited the ravine, he discovered that a fire had broken out in the Sanctuary camp. The police later reported the arson.

But if the city wants to bring people in, it’s about improving the available indoor spaces, according to Hwang. “Instead of taking an enforcement approach, we should say, ‘How do we make choosing an alternative that we think is better, more appealing?'”

Hwang pointed to the city’s efforts in Dufferin Grove last fall. After the clearings in other parks, observers said the city appeared to be taking a new approach. The city says it has sent teams to the park to forge “meaningful relationships” while speeding up access to housing. According to the count, 25 people moved into residences from August 11 to December 23, while 88 accepted places in shelters.

Hwang believes that effort confirms the effectiveness of a non-enforcement approach to outdoor homelessness. He is now concerned about the city’s plan to close its 27 pandemic-era shelters — most hotels and motels — within two years.

“If that’s the location that people successfully moved to rather than staying in camps, that just confirms the importance of that option,” he said.

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