Like you, I am very disturbed by the images and reports of violence from the Lamport encampment clearing this week. That is not a representation of the design or intent of the Pathways Inside Program, as many have safely come indoors and acceptable service without incident.
I spoke directly with City staff and other councillors that same day and the days following to express concerns. The situation escalated quickly and it’s clear that we need an approach to moving people safely indoors into hotels, shelters and housing that does not rely on uniform police enforcement.
My focus will continue to be on the wellbeing and safety of everyone affected, including the encampment residents. The Pathway Inside Program was developed with feedback from encampment residents and people with lived experience in the encampments to address a number of concerns. In addition to providing immediate shelter and indoor accommodation, the enhanced program provides access to daily nutritious meals and snacks, hot showers, laundry services, along with mental and physical health supports and on-site harm reduction services. Most importantly, the Pathway Inside Program is focused on helping the individual access the critical path to permanent housing. Through this integrated and comprehensive approach the City has already successfully sheltered a majority of the people living at the Lamport encampment.
Since April 2020, 1600 people living in 64 encampments across the city have been successfully referred to indoor accommodations comprised of hotel rooms, shelters, and rent-geared-to-income housing units. In addition, between April 2020 and April 2021, the City helped more than 5500 individuals experiencing homelessness find permanent housing through the Rapid Re-Housing Initiative and with additional housing allowances. In the span of one year’s time, 8100 people, once homeless and street-involved now have direct access to the resources and supports they need to begin a path to healthier living and housing stability, providing them with the dignity that everyone deserves.
This is hard work done by many good people, but we know that even more still needs to be done. I am grateful for the activism, the leadership, and the compassion of the community, who have stepped up to care for and advocate alongside those who have experienced homelessness, including people living in encampments. I will continue to advocate with you and to work non-stop for more affordable and supportive housing, rent subsidies and an end to COVID evictions.
As Vice-Chair of the Board of Health we have successfully worked with Toronto Public Health and City staff to expand health and harm reduction facilities in shelter programs. I will continue demanding and advocating that the Provincial Government, who has the responsibility for health and mental health care and supportive housing, immediately step up to help address chronic and growing homelessness, the mental health and opioid crisis. As we learn more about COVID-19 and variants of concern, we are continually implementing enhanced measures for infection prevention and control in the shelters and shelter hotels, and providing additional resources to the operators including personal protective equipment and increased supports.
Immunization for people experiencing homelessness is an active urgent program underway right now by the City of Toronto COVID-19 Task Force, Toronto Public Health, and our local hospital partners. We successfully advocated for the Province of Ontario to prioritize vaccinations in shelters and encampments to start with the very first phase of the roll-out, and that outreach began right away. All shelter programs, including temporary sites, have now hosted at least one vaccine clinic on-site, and more than 50% of residents had received their first dose as of Friday, May 14, with dozens of additional vaccine clinics underway this week. Outreach and clinics will continue to be brought directly to shelters, drop-ins, and encampments for additional opportunities to get vaccinated.
Despite all the work done over the past year, I believe the City took serious steps backwards in building trust and getting people housed when violence broke out at Lamport. I am worried about increasing violence and injury to encampment residents, advocates, and City workers. This is not how we demonstrate the care, and compassion that I know we believe in as a City.
As a City we have struggled to make our case for why it is so important to encourage and support people inside, and why it is critical that we continue to clean the parks and encampment sites. When City workers arrived at Lamport, there were over 20 scattered tents and structures despite there being less than 6 people sleeping in the park. Today and for the past two days, Parks staff are at Lamport clearing and cleaning abandoned tents and waste. This includes uneaten food, human detritus, gas canisters, and used drug paraphernalia. I believe that the City’s work must be allowed to continue for the health, safety and dignity of encampment residents, and the surrounding communities. I also believe that the City staff doing that difficult work should be able to carry out their duties without verbal abuse or threats of bodily harm.
On the whole, I think City staff have worked tremendously well under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I also think it is important that the City must commit to taking a different strategy. We have a duty to provide a human rights based approach to housing people, and that extends to people who do not want to come inside for a variety of personal reasons.
The City is in conversation with Leilani Farha, who until 2020 served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing and has been working with City staff in recent weeks through an organization called The Shift. My colleagues and I have urged City staff to reassess their approach, including partnering with Ms. Leilani, and immediately reconsider the trespass notices and find alternative ways to communicate with the encampment residents.
Fundamentally, we need to address Toronto’s housing crisis by creating more supportive and affordable housing. We need to address the overdose crisis by expanding safe supply programs, integrating provincial health care services into shelters, and working towards decriminalization of personal possession of illicit substances. We need to tackle the economic crisis caused by this pandemic by getting the Ontario Government to end residential evictions, and scale up income assistance support. We need all of these measures, and we need them now.
Most of all, we need you to continue your advocacy to help us get to these outcomes together.