Jordan Heath-Rawlings: You don’t have to live in Toronto to have seen and heard what’s been going on in the city’s parks over the past few weeks.
News Clip: Police officers formed a line as they slowly work their way through one of 2 encampments on the North and South sides of Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park. As bystanders pulled at fencing while shouting enchanting, police began evicting those who live here.
News Clip 2: For the second day in a row, the city of Toronto is evicting residents of a homeless encampment, this one outside of Lamport Stadium.
News Clip 3: They’ve been given notice to leave, and some refuse to go, and things got violent.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: You might live elsewhere in Canada, and you might not be concerned by what’s happening in Toronto, but you should be. First, because the number of people without homes in Canada is climbing and encampments like the three broken up by the police in Toronto, can be found in parks and cities all across the country. It’s a real and growing problem, and so at least potentially is how a city deals with it. You’re probably familiar with the idea that how we treat less privileged people is a good way to judge someone’s character. It’s also a pretty good way to judge a government. The fact that these encampments exist at all means that somewhere along the line, a government has failed people in large numbers. So then the question becomes what that government is going to do about it? Governments, you may have heard, don’t generally like to admit failure, so they tend to do what Toronto’s has done recently and police their way out of a jam. But there are better ways, and those ways are easier and probably a lot cheaper. They just require that a government admits failure publicly and try something different. So ask yourself, is your city capable of that? And as you answer that question, watch what happens next in Toronto this summer.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Leilani Farha is a former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to housing. She is currently the Global Director of The Shift, which is a movement to secure the right to housing. So the perfect person to talk to you about what’s going on in Toronto recently. Hello, Leilani.
Leilani Farha: Hi there.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Thank you for taking the time. Maybe we could just start for people outside of Toronto and people who haven’t been following it. Tell me about how the city has been handling encampments of unhoused people that have formerly at least existed in parks across the city.
Leilani Farha: Yeah. So with the pandemic came actually a significant increase in the number of people living in parks across the city of Toronto, actually across Canada. But we’re talking about Toronto. So I’ll keep my comments there. There are a number of reasons for that, but one of them was, of course, the downsizing of shelters because of the social distancing rules that were part of the prescription to try to curb the pandemic. And so big shelters became smaller shelters. So let’s say there were 30 beds. It might have gone down to 15 beds. 100 beds might have gone down to 30 beds. And with nowhere to go, a lot of people ended up in parks. There are other reasons, as well. As the pandemic rolled on, it became increasingly clear that congregate or settings where a lot of people reside were becoming hot beds of the spread of COVID.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Leilani Farha: And so a lot of people were thinking, wait, I think I’m better off. Even though it’s really tough living, it’s actually some of the toughest living in parks. I actually might survive in a park, whereas I may not in a shelter. And of course, we all know shelters are really hard places to live at the best of times. So Toronto, the city of Toronto, saw this steep increase in the number of people living in parks and many parks, parkettes, and bigger parks across the city. The city of Toronto had been working with people in the park encampments to try to move them inside to shelters and eventually to hotel spaces, which they call sort of shelter hotels. And this was really in response to COVID itself and the rise in the number of people living in encampments. So the city started to understand how important it was to try to move people inside and set out to do so. To a point, let’s put it that way. And then at some point, I can’t really I don’t know, I don’t have all the inside gossip here.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Leilani Farha: But at some point, the city decided that they needed enough was enough, and they needed to clean up the parks. And so I think it was on June 12th, they issued trespass notices to residents at park encampments, especially the big parks, without any definite date as to when the trespass notices might be acted upon. And now we’ve seen a rollout of this approach, and the approach has been, I have to be honest to say, brutal. And I say brutal because it’s a law and order approach. It’s a criminalization approach, bringing in of hundreds of police officers, security forces, private security forces, police officers on horseback, on foot, on bicycles. I’ve seen hazmat suits. People have reported facial recognition technology, drones, barricades. And in the most recent incursion, there was some real police violence. They might say there was advocate violence. I wasn’t on the ground, so I can’t speak to any of that. There were arrests, unfortunately, and unfortunately, not so many people ended up being housed. So that’s where we’re at right now.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How unusual are those scenes that people in Toronto and maybe elsewhere in the country saw from those encampments? You’ve done this work not just in Canada, but as part of the UN. How often do you see it get that physical and brutal to use your word?
Leilani Farha: Well, what was disturbing to me was that it seemed like scenes out of the United States, to be honest, particularly California. I’ve been up and down California from Berkeley all the way down to San Diego, and I visited encampments there in this kind of law and order police confrontation. That type of thing is what I’ve seen in the US, particularly in California. And so I was quite surprised by not the criminalization per se, because across Canada, a lot of cities have been dealing with encampments as if they are acts of criminality and have brought in police or RCMP and that kind of thing. So in that way, I wasn’t surprised. It was the numbers. It’s not to say that other cities in the country are doing great with respect to encampments. I think a lot of cities don’t know what to do. I have seen some better examples, but generally there is a sense across the country that these are criminal acts, trespassing, that kind of thing.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Are there ways that cities could be going about this that don’t use as much policing, or at the very least, that don’t use as much force? And if so, do we know if Toronto had even considered that?
Leilani Farha: Well, Yes, of course, there are other ways. I mean, that’s like my life’s work.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right. That’s why we have you on the show.
Leilani Farha: Yeah. Exactly. So I mean, I’m trying to get city governments, not just in Toronto, everywhere. And let’s be clear, this is not just a North American phenomenon, just so the listeners know.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Leilani Farha: I was in Nigeria. They round up homeless people from under bridges, put them in the back of these Patty wagon type things, police vehicles. And if you don’t have money to pay a fine for your own homelessness, you are then basically put in prison for some indefinite term. I’ve been to France the same thing. I’ve seen migrants and refugees who are homeless being rounded up by police. In India, I mean, absolutely there’s been a criminalization of homeless people. So just to say this is a global pattern, my work has been very much about trying to get city governments and national governments to understand that homelessness is, in fact, only or mostly, let’s say, a manifestation of the failure of governments to implement the right to housing successfully and effectively.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: They must love it when you tell them that.
Leilani Farha: Yeah, exactly. Well, you know, it’s not to say that sometimes individual characteristics don’t contribute to one’s homelessness. That could be true.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Leilani Farha: But it is to say 100% for sure that if governments understood homelessness as a breach of human rights, homelessness as threatening the right to life to dignity, which are like the cornerstones of human rights, that governments then might do everything that they could to ensure that one’s individual circumstances or characteristics didn’t result in homelessness, if you see what I mean.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I do. Can I ask you a question? Can I ask you to explain that to me, like you would if you were speaking to John Tory, Mayor of Toronto, or some other head of municipal government.
Leilani Farha: Yeah. So I would say if it is, in fact, the case, which is decreasingly true. But if, in fact, it is the case that the people living in the parks in Toronto suffer psychosocial disability or suffer unemployment or suffer drug addiction or have suffered violence in the home and for those reasons, find themselves homeless. If that’s the case, then the government has failed to ensure their human rights because housing is a human right, and the government should be at the ready to ensure that those circumstances don’t lead to homelessness. And that means ensuring access to adequate and affordable housing and affordable to that person. So if the person has no income, it means ensuring their rent is paid. And if a person needs social supports, then those would be provided. If a person needs daycare, then that would be provided. And the failure to provide those things is the failure to implement the right to housing, and therefore that person’s homelessness is not anything but the government’s failure.
So it’s a hard pill to swallow for a lot of governments, as you can imagine, because I am saying that they have failed these people, and they have. I mean, who wants to live in a city where there are lots of homeless people? No one. Does the Mayor want there to be a lot of homeless people in his city? I don’t think so. And so, I mean, at least we start the conversation in the same place, which is that none of us think that this is great, especially not when Canada is a tenth richest country in the world, approximately, even in a pandemic. And the city of Toronto is an affluent city measuring against other cities around the world. But it is a tough pill to swallow, and I haven’t succeeded, obviously. But we have to just keep having the conversation and getting that awareness. In Canada and elsewhere, we still have a pretty colonial, paternalistic and kind of charitable attitude at best, toward homelessness, and that has to change. And when you understand homelessness as a deprivation of human rights, then you move away from a charitable approach, right. It’s not just, Oh, you know, what can the Salvation Army provide? It becomes a different matter. It becomes about government accountability.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And so how do you start that? Because I can imagine putting myself in the shoes of people in power to hear it described as a failure on so many levels, right. Not just on homelessness policy, on the policies that lead people to homelessness in the first place. How do you convince them to get going on a better path? And where do you start? Because it must seem daunting.
Leilani Farha: Well, maybe it seems daunting to them, but it doesn’t seem daunting to me because there is a very rich resource of where to start. It’s the people living in homelessness themselves. And once governments get their heads around the fact that people are actually experts in their own lives, even when they are poor, homeless, addicted to a drug, a victim of violence, whatever. Once you start there, it becomes much easier to imagine the way forward. So my experience has been that most people living in homelessness are, one, incredibly articulate. It’s amazing to me how they have such a clear sense of how they’ve been messed with by the system.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Leilani Farha: And what they need to get back up on their feet. And the claims are always very modest. Very rarely does anyone want a free ride. Most people want to be part of the solution, of their own solution. But it is a big barrier for a lot of governments to cede power and control in that way, because it is a ceding. But I think if there’s no other way forward, that’s really what I’ve concluded. You have to create the conditions that will enable the people living in the parks in Toronto, for example, to feel that if they do engage in conversation, it’s going to be a real conversation, that they really can determine their own futures, that they have a say in any decision that’s being made about them. So to create that atmosphere takes some work, obviously, and issuing trespass notices and bringing police out obviously destroys any of that good faith and trust that might have already been built between the city and encampment residents. So unfortunately, they may have to be starting all over, start at square one at this point.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: The city made it plain in the releases around these encampments that they were trying to get these folks into shelters or into housing, and that was their ultimate goal. And to your point earlier, it didn’t work, but they would claim that they were making the offer.
Leilani Farha: Yeah. And in fact, the Mayor said that they had 20,000 encounters between their outreach workers then the encampment residents. And I can only say back to the Mayor that obviously those encounters were unsuccessful. And then the Mayor, any good leader, would have to look at why he and his people have been unsuccessful at moving homeless people into the available options. And I mean, I could probably give a spoiler alert that maybe the options weren’t acceptable to the people who are living in homelessness, and that if we understand them to be experts in their own lives, maybe they’re right that those options aren’t suitable for them. I mean, I’ve talked to encampment residents in Toronto and, of course, many other places, and it’s just simply understood that shelters are not a place that people want to stay and certainly not in any long term way. And if you look at the countries and the cities where homelessness is being dealt with most effectively, shelters are used only in emergencies, so for 48 hours, and they’re not relied upon.
You know, this is the thing that gets me, to be honest, Jordan, we as a country, if I can say that, are grappling with the way in which Indigenous Peoples have been treated in this country, particularly the residential schools and the institutionalization of Indigenous children. I don’t understand why the parallel isn’t drawn. Shelters and shelter hotels are perceived by many as institutions, and like, 40% of the homeless population is Indigenous in this country, approximately. So why would we think that shelters are something that they’re going to want to go to if they’re perceived as another form of institutionalization, right? And think also, some homeless people would have been incarcerated at some point in their life, right. And they’re now out of prison. Again, a shelter or shelter hotel may very well be perceived as quite similar to a prison, and they don’t want to go back there. So the bottom line is cities just have to get their head around that and figure out. Okay, so shelters don’t work. What might work? What could work? What could we do? How better to spend our resources?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Why can’t they get their heads around that? Are they worried about the cost? Because that’s the first thing that I would imagine is whether or not it’s actually more cost effective, which that policing must have cost a ton of money. But that tends to be where municipal governments thoughts go. And I bet if you’re not familiar with how to do this, it can seem like it would be very resource intensive.
Leilani Farha: I think it’s now recognized that I’m unfortunately not good on the numbers in Canada, but I think it’s now recognized that beyond policing, I mean, obviously, policing is hugely expensive, but shelters themselves and hotels are inefficient use of resources where housing is concerned. So the lease, the hotel and the hotel that’s leasing back to the city charges an arm and a leg. These are not cheap options. And shelters, to run shelters is incredibly expensive. The social scientists who are good at this stuff have crunched the numbers, and it’s absolutely more expensive to use shelters and hotels. I’ve heard figures like more than 3,000 dollars a month for a hotel room for one person.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Wow.
Leilani Farha: So we know what the cost of rent is in Toronto. You can get a place for less than 3,000 dollars.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Leilani Farha: So why can’t they get their head around it? Well, they’re wedded to a system. You know, cities themselves are systems and bureaucracies. And so it’s hard for one system to imagine dismantling a system within it. I imagine that’s part of it. It’s also because of how we understand and view homeless people, I think. There’s this notion still of people being house ready and that they need transition. You couldn’t go for an encampment to a proper, regular, secure, safe, affordable home. I personally think that’s hogwash. Imagine with food or water, oh, I don’t think you’re water ready. To say people are not house ready is pretty, well, it’s telling. Let’s just put it that way.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Leaving governments aside because they’ve got a lot of work to do on this clearly. Do you think that attitude towards people who are experiencing homelessness is changing in general and especially the events of the last couple of months for Torontonians? I feel like a lot of people’s eyes were opened by those police actions, but I’d love to hear from someone who talks to people around the world.
Leilani Farha: You know, Jordan, I’m not sure. Now you’re on the ground in Toronto, and I’m not so I don’t have a feel.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well I just never know if I’m in a bubble of people who really, really care about these things or if something’s actually penetrated it and moved the consciousness.
Leilani Farha: That’s right. Yeah. Here’s my concern. So I think that people would probably be horrified and were horrified to see the images coming out of Toronto after the Lamport Stadium displacement and all those police and the Trinity Bellwoods. But what worries me about it is that I think what people can get their heads around is how horrific it is to use the police that way. I don’t know then that that gets us closer to coming up with good solutions and having real support for people living in homelessness. I actually have said this to the city, It’s like when you’re a parent and your child is unhappy about something and reasonably so, but then they start having a temper tantrum, and then as the parent, you start addressing the temper tantrum because it’s so embarrassing because they’re screaming their head off in a public place, for example. So you end up addressing the temper tantrum, and then the actual issue gets left untouched or unsolved.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Leilani Farha: And I feel, I worry that that what happened here or what could happen here, where everyone’s up in arms about how much spending the city of Toronto is doing with respect to police. And then we get into the whole defund police movement, which, you know, has legs and is important, and I obviously completely understand it. And certainly in the context of Black Lives Matter, I’ve understood it well, but that then has a life of its own, and it’s very much civil and political rights. And I think we lose the emphasis around the right to housing and, you know, how difficult it is to live in a park and the city’s obligations around this.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: If the city of Toronto was to agree to approach it as a human right, spend the money, create the housing, where would they put it? Because that’s another thing we’re very familiar with in Toronto, is neighbourhood blow back to proposed housing units that would house unhoused people or low income people or et cetera, et cetera. And that’s a whole other issue.
Leilani Farha: Yes. So I actually don’t think people living in homelessness can wait too long. And certainly the ones who are really living, like in shelters, in shelter hotels and in the parks, they can’t wait for social housing to be built anyway. So I really feel like governments, plural, need to develop an acquisition strategy and acquire more assets as they call them and turn them into public assets. And none of us get to choose who our neighbours are. None of us get to choose. I live in a neighbourhood. I don’t choose who buys the house beside me or the condo above me or, you know, and the city has to be very firm and proud that they are providing housing for people who are without. And that could be turned into an incredibly powerful characteristic of the city of Toronto.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That is the city I’d be proud to live in. I’m not going to hold my breath just yet. I hope you won’t fault me for that. Leilani, thank you so much for your insights today.
Leilani Farha: It’s been a pleasure, thanks.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Leilani Farha, an advocate for housing rights as human rights. That was The Big Story, for more from us, head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. Talk to us anytime via email, thebigstorypodcast, all one word, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. Find us in your favourite podcast player, follow us, subscribe to us, like us, rate us, review us, whatever it tells you to do. We appreciate it every time you do it. That’s why I keep saying it.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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