Homeless encampments should be unnecessary — not illegal

OPINION: Punishing the most vulnerable is morally questionable and doesn’t address homelessness. We need to stop evictions and increase housing supply and supports
By Jesse Jenkinson and Stephen Hwang - Published on Oct 06, 2021
Police and city officials evicted people from the Alexandra Park encampment in Toronto on July 20, 2021. (Chris Young/CP)

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Jesse Jenkinson is a postdoctoral fellow at the MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, St. Michael's Hospital, University of Toronto; Stephen Hwang is a professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto.

The number of people visibly living in encampments has increased throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This has led cities — including Toronto, Victoria, and Vancouver — to work with encampment residents to move them into shelters, hotel spaces, and, more rarely, stable housing.

When those offers are declined, the next step can be the removal of residents’ belongings and sometimes — as we saw recently in Toronto and Halifax — violent evictions by police.

As researchers who work to improve the health and well-being of people who experience of homelessness, we are deeply concerned about the long-term consequences of this approach. Punishing the most vulnerable is morally questionable — and it isn’t an effective strategy for addressing homelessness. Criminalizing poverty doesn’t work.

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The first step in addressing this problem is understanding the answer to this basic question: Why are some people in encampments insisting on staying where they are?

Encampment life is difficult. Year-round exposure to the elements and a lack of running water or sanitation can make daily survival an enormous challenge. Yet some do not feel safe in the shelter spaces they are being offered.

Agenda segment, March 25, 2021: Homelessness and COVID-19

In Toronto, the number of violent incidents in shelters has more than doubled, from 120 incidents in 2016 to 368 in January 2021. And, in April 2021, there were COVID-19 outbreaks across 20 shelters.

Although the City of Toronto reports that 1,670 people have been referred to inside spaces since April 2020, only 9 per cent have been moved into stable housing. The rest are still in shelters or hotel rooms. With little hope of moving into stable housing, people may be skeptical of leaving encampments, worried they’ll get stuck in the shelter system.

Other encampment residents may feel that their mental health and well-being depend on the support systems they’ve established. Being homeless comes with powerful stigma and social exclusion — but an encampment can be a place to belong.

Encampments are not long-term options. People cannot live in public parks indefinitely, and no one is arguing for that as a solution. However, forcibly displacing people from encampments destroys trust with service providers and actually makes it harder to convince people to move into shelters or hotel spaces.

For Indigenous people living in encampments, forced evictions can be linked to intergenerational memories and trauma of residential schools, the ‘60s Scoop, and other colonial practices. Exacerbating trauma and breaching trust can push people further away from the very services we are trying to connect them to — including housing programs, mental-health support, and COVID-19 vaccination efforts.

The end goal is stable housing. Encampments are a result of a national housing and affordability crisis. As we push for a real solution — an increase in housing supply and related supports — the encampment evictions must stop. We need to make encampments unnecessary.

We can make encampments unnecessary with a trauma-informed, person-centred approach that builds trusting relationships between service providers and clients. Not all individuals have the same needs, and we need to offer people a range of options: hotel spaces, rent supplements, case managers, peer-support workers, and other social and health supports.

When offering people spaces, we must recognize that people are part of existing communities and that these connections are vital to their well-being. Allowing people to move in groups to the same locations can help people combat social isolation, stay housed, and support their mental health.

Some incredible work has already been done. In September of last year, the federal government announced a goal to end chronic homelessness. During the pandemic, federal, provincial, and municipal governments mobilized resources, developed solutions, and coordinated efforts in unprecedented ways — including in encampments — and bolstered investments in affordable-housing development.

Agenda segment, June 25, 2021: Clearing homeless encampments

Cities such as Victoria have committed to full-scale transformation of the homeless-serving system, rooted in a right to housing and human-rights approach.

Our hope is that the unprecedented efforts from governments and community groups are just the beginning of a more humane, consistent, and evidence-based approach to addressing chronic homelessness in Canada. There is momentum now, and the newly elected federal government has an opportunity and responsibility to move people off the streets and into safe, permanent homes.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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