Access to food and housing are basic human rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, yet one in five people are experiencing food insecurity and at least 7,500 people are currently experiencing homelessness in Toronto.
Toronto is facing a growing housing crisis, and this is one of the main drivers of food insecurity in our city. Rent in vacant units is increasing three times faster than income levels. The development of affordable and subsidized housing units has not kept pace with demand, leaving close to 80,000 households on the waitlist for subsidized housing. The most common reason why food bank clients reported skipping a meal was to be able to pay their rent.
This situation has been exacerbated by COVID-19. Currently, 11% of renters in Toronto have accrued rental arrears and could be facing eviction in the coming months, according to the CMHC. With insufficient affordable housing available, it is likely that we will see an increase in homelessness in the coming months. This is particularly concerning given that there are only 7,000 shelters beds available in Toronto and the occupancy level continuously exceeds 90%.
During the pandemic, there has been an increase in the number people sleeping outdoors in encampments. One way in which the City of Toronto has responded the Pathways Inside Program, which offers encampment residents spaces in hotels that have been converted to shelters.
While some encampment residents have moved indoors, some choose to remain or to return to encampments for a variety of reasons:
- There have been multiple COVID-19 outbreaks in Toronto shelters and shelter-hotels, where physical distancing and adequate ventilation remain ongoing challenges.
- Shelters and shelter-hotels can have restrictive policies, such as curfews, limitations on having visitors, restrictions on pets, and/or limits to the number of personal belongings the individual can bring.
- People may have had traumatic experiences in shelters or shelter-hotels, such as having their belongings stolen or being assaulted.
- For some, encampments can offer a sense of community and better proximity to services.
In recent months, trespass notices have been issued by the City of Toronto at the larger encampments, warning that if residents did not comply, they could be subject to removal and face a $10,000 fine. In late-May, a number of these encampments were forcibly dismantled. Those who did not accept the offer to move indoors to a shelters or shelter-hotels were displaced and will likely set up camp elsewhere.
We recognize that providing emergency housing and shelter is complex, particularly during a pandemic, and that the City of Toronto has taken steps to address issues raised by the homeless community and advocates. For example, in addition to converting hotels into shelter spaces, the City has also been advancing a modular housing initiative, which provides rapid transitional housing for people experiencing homelessness. These are some of the important initiatives that should be commended.
However, we are deeply concerned that threatening encampment residents with large fines and evictions perpetuates the criminalization of poverty. Encampment residents remain in encampments for valid reasons, and forcibly removing them can cause trauma, erode trust with public institutions, and lead to further social exclusion and economic hardship in this already marginalized population.
Until encampment residents have the agency to move into indoor housing that meets their needs, the City of Toronto can reduce the safety risks associated with these encampments by adopting harm reduction policies, such as ensuring there is access to water, sanitation, and fire prevention.
Every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. We urge the City of Toronto to listen to the concerns of encampment residents and adopt harm reduction approaches that support people who are homeless, rather than policies that evict, displace, and criminalize. Food and housing are human rights and we will continue advocating across all levels of government for the rapid expansion of transitional, supportive, and subsidized housing to address the growing housing and food insecurity crisis.