TORONTO — Along with hundreds of fellow academics, Dr. Martine August, assistant professor at the University of Waterloo, has released a public statement addressed to Mayor John Tory and Toronto City Councillors, condemning encampment evictions and impelling the municipality to end the forced eviction of those inhabiting jury-rigged shelters in the city. The statement also called on Toronto to open at least 2,000 shelter hotel spaces, primarily in the downtown core, in the upcoming months.
“We call on the City to respect the choice of residents to remain in tents and temporary shelters, and to immediately stop the forced eviction of residents and the removal of their belongings,” according to the statement, issued a day following the Musicians Against Encampment Evictions declaration.
Toronto’s service industry, artists and authors have since also released open letters to the municipal government, likewise demanding the end of evictions and more humane treatment toward citizens experiencing homelessness.
The academic signatories argued that the city’s confiscation of shelters and personal effects of encampment occupants impinge on the principles outlined in National Protocol for Homelessness Encampments in Canada by the UN Special Rapporteur, which includes the honouring of the human rights, dignity, and autonomy of encampment residents — in other words, the temporary shelter occupants must wilfully consent to relocation and rehousing.
The signatories maintained that these inalienable rights should not be impinged upon, especially not during the pandemic: “We demand that the city continue to allow encampment residents to remain in public parks and spaces for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis and until there are sufficient safe, affordable, and dignified shelter options for encampment residents.”
As of 3:30 PM, the statement garnered 483 signatures from academics and researchers across different disciplines, from various institutions in Ontario, all standing in solidarity with encampment residents. It also attracted support from volunteer organizations like the Encampment Support Network, which has been providing residents with daily necessities and emotional support as well as advocating better, more humane state intervention to the homelessness crisis during the pandemic.
The signatories also argued that the coerced expulsion of encampment residents not only displaces and endangers the population but also exacerbates the homelessness crisis.
“It is a punitive approach that harms residents, many of whom will continue to be homeless, but elsewhere. Acknowledging this is an important step in moving forward toward a future in which no one has to live in parks.”
In addition to an eviction moratorium, the signatories requested the city to not remove any temporary housing structures, such as foam domes and mini-houses, that keep residents warm in frigid temperatures and inclement weather. Last month, the municipal government had issued a warning letter to local carpenter Khaleel Seivwright to stop constructing his Tiny Shelters, threatening to remove them and charge him for allegedly violating city bylaws.
With winter here, Toronto carpenter Khaleel Seivwright has been building Tiny Shelters for unhoused people. But city officials say they’re unsafe & have threatened legal action.— CBC Radio: The Current (@TheCurrentCBC) December 1, 2020
We hear from Seivwright at 9am, & discuss the scale of the crisis with @cathyacrowe and @Hulchanski pic.twitter.com/uJCVwpMNgU
The signatories demanded that, in the interim, the city should supply safety equipment for residents and furnish camps with running water, washrooms, and showering facilities. Finally, the statement urged the municipal government to provide permanent and affordable housing as well as support initiatives for people experiencing homelessness in the upcoming winter months.
On October 6, the City of Toronto had announced its 2020-2021 winter program to increase shelter services and street outreach for people experiencing homelessness in the city. “The winter plan will provide approximately 560 new spaces between November and April through a combination of shelter beds, hotel programs and supportive housing units,” according to the news release. “This compares to 485 spaces offered through last year’s winter services plan.”
Frontline outreach workers and advocates have, however, disputed the adequacy of the city’s winter scheme, saying that 560 shelters fall dismally short of the number of people experiencing homelessness in Toronto. “There are at least 1000 people living in encampments, and this does not include people sleeping in stairwells, on grates, or in trains,” the Encampment Support Network said.
As part of its 24-hour respite system, the government has also opened 100 shelter beds at Exhibition Place’s Better Living Centre. It is an open-air congregate facility outfitted with plexiglass dividers, which itself has drawn censure for its dehumanizing prison-like conditions, where inhabitants are denied the right to privacy and reportedly under constant surveillance.
The respite promised a place to rest, meal provisions, and hot showers, but residents are expected to take cold showers in an external trailer and are subjected to a two-bag limit on personal effects.
In a tweet, local outreach worker Lorraine Lam said that the respite centre is “putting humans in glass cages,” likening its layout to a detention centre. “This is not ‘better living,’” she wrote.
The Network criticized the 24-hour respite centre for its failure to protect shelter occupants against COVID-19 viral transmission. “Courts have already found the city to be in violation of its own physical distancing regulations in shelters, and at least 54 people have died in shelters since the start of the pandemic.”
According to the Network, “Encampments remain the safest option for people concerned about the virus.”
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