Toronto’s ombudsman says the city’s encampment removal protocol is “unreasonable” because it’s outdated, and a detailed plan needs to be created to replace the city’s approach.
The city’s Ombudsman Kwame Addo released an interim report on Thursday on an investigation into the handling of encampment evictions at city parks last year.
The city sent dozens of bylaw officers and uniformed police officers to remove homeless encampments at multiple parks last summer, including Trinity-Bellwoods Park, Alexandra Park, and Lamport Stadium Park.
The city said the evictions followed months of engagement with encampment residents to encourage them to accept alternate housing. City officials said they had no choice but to clear the encampments because they were unsafe and illegal.
The clearouts led to violent clashes between police and protesters and several arrests, and a significant amount of public concern was raised over the level of force used during evictions.
In Sept. 2021, Toronto’s ombudsman’s office launched an investigation into the evictions but its probe did not assess the conduct of Toronto police officers as this is beyond its mandate.
“We do not have the power to order the City to take any particular action, and we can’t prevent staff from implementing City by-laws, including the by-law that makes camping in parks illegal. In short, we can’t order the City to clear or not clear encampments,” the report says.
For its investigation, the ombudsman’s office says it conducted 50 interviews with city staff and community stakeholders, reviewed approximately 11,000 documents and spoke to 43 people who lived in encampments.
The office released eight recommendations in its report that the city should act on immediately to ensure the city’s response to encampments are done in a “consistent and coordinated way, following a process that is well established, transparent, and understood by all.”
The office recommends that the city develop a detailed plan to outline how it will update its Interdepartmental Service Protocol for Homeless People Camping in Public Spaces (IDP), which was adopted in 2005.
“During the course of our investigation, we found that the IDP is outdated and not consistently followed by City staff. Although the City knew that the IDP needed to be updated, it does not have a detailed plan or timeline to guide this work. We believe this is unreasonable,” the report says.
The report notes that the plan should include project milestones and timelines for completion and adequate staff resources should be allocated to the update.
Another recommendation is that the plan to update the IDP should include public consultations to receive feedback from the community.
“Groups that the City should consult with include people with lived experiences in encampments, community organizations that provide services to people who are unhoused, and internal and external stakeholders working in the fields of housing and human rights,” the report says.
The office recommends that the city make public detailed summaries of the feedback it receives from these consultations.
In addition to updating its IDP, the ombudsman’s office recommends that the city clearly define the role and mandate of the city’s Encampment Office, and assess what resources it needs to successfully carry out its duties.
The Encampment Office was created in the summer of 2020 to help coordinate the city’s response to encampments.
However, the report says that some city staff noted that the office has been significantly under-resourced since day one.”
“Staff commented that the workload for a small team was “overwhelming” and that it appeared that the office was just moving from “crisis to crisis” and incapable of taking a larger, systemic view of responding to encampments because of the lack resources,” the report says.
Last year, the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) took over the city’s Encampment Office but staff have raised concerns about if this was the right move due to its “unique responsibilities,” including supporting people experiencing homelessness and enforcing encampment evictions.
Due to the complexity of the Encampment Office, the ombudsman’s office recommends that the city consider whether it stays under the direction of the OEM.
The City of Toronto says it has accepted the recommendations and has committed to implement all of them.
“The City of Toronto accepts the Ombudsman’s recommendations and remains committed to strengthening its housing first approach to street and encampment outreach and providing wrap-around, client-centred case management supports to people living outdoors, constructively and in a non-confrontational way,” staff said in a statement on Thursday.
The city says it will provide an update on its progress by the end of the year, and quarterly thereafter.