Toronto showed “significant unfairness” when it cleared encampments in the summer of 2021 and chose to act quickly despite there being no urgency to do so, an investigation into the controversial moves has found.
In a report released Friday, Toronto Ombudsman Kwame Addo says the city chose “speed over people” when it forcefully cleared encampments in Trinity Bellwoods, Alexandra and Lamport Stadium parks.
“Our investigation found the City displayed insufficient regard for the people it moved out of the parks,” Addo said.
“It failed to live up to its stated commitments to fairness and a human rights-based approach to housing.”
Addo’s office launched an investigation in September 2021 following the encampment clearings which saw police officers in riot gear clear the sites of residents and their supporters, and resulted in dozens of people facing charges.
The investigation focused on how the city planned the encampment clearings, engaged stakeholders and communicated with the public. It found a number of problems, including that the city treated the clearings as a “top priority” and chose expediency and enforcement despite there being no evidence to suggest the encampments were an emergency requiring an urgent response.
Addo found the city chose to clear encampments quickly rather than focusing on the needs of those living in them. As well, it said the city was aware people living there had complex mental health needs, “yet failed to include plans to address those needs.
“Encampments and supporting the people living in them are complex. But the City owes a particularly high duty of fairness to these residents,” he said.
Longtime street nurse Cathy Crowe called Addo’s report a thorough one.
“It essentially demonstrates that homeless people were treated like an infestation … the efforts were to stomp them out and never have them come back, as fast as possible,” said Crowe.
“It tells the tale of malpractice that led to violence and injury.”
Report findings ‘validating’ for advocates
Addo also found that the city failed to foster meaningful engagement with people living in them, but rather communicated in a way that was “confusing, lacked transparency and showed a lack of understanding about their reality.”
They also did not provide any dedicated onsite staff for people living in temporary dwellings in local parks to speak with, despite the city knowing they had questions which had gone unanswered, the report adds.
In an interim report released last July, Addo concluded that city staff rely on an outdated and inconsistent approach when it comes to dealing with unhoused people in public parks.
“I think it’s validating for a lot of people who were doing advocacy around the encampments who were struggling to get the truth out,” said Zoë Dodd, a community scholar at MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions.
“The one thing the ombudsman talks about is harm and trauma, but it wasn’t just harm and trauma, it also led to people’s deaths.”
Recent city data shows Toronto saw an average of more than three deaths per week among people experiencing homelessness last year, totalling 187 deaths in 2022.