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Toronto's ombudsman to investigate homeless encampment clearings

Ombudsman Kwame Addo says his office has received complaints about city's approach
Sept. 29, 2021

Toronto's ombudsman says he's launched an investigation into the city's clearing of homeless encampments this summer.

Ombudsman Kwame Addo said his office has received complaints that raised concerns about the city's approach during the evictions.

The city and police cleared four homeless encampments in three parks this summer, but clashed with residents and their supporters.

Police used the riot squad to clear three of those encampments.

The city says the makeshift living quarters were dangerous, and police have said they were supporting city staff and carried out enforcement as a last resort.

The ombudsman says the investigation will focus on how the city planned the clearings, engaged stakeholders and communicated with the public.

Brad Ross, spokesperson for the City of Toronto, said in a statement on Tuesday that the city it will cooperate fully with the ombudsman's investigation.

"The City will ensure the Ombudsman is provided with the entire scope of work undertaken by staff on this complex and important matter as it worked to ensure some of the city's most vulnerable residents had access to safe, indoor accommodation and services, while keeping parks safe and accessible for all," Ross said in the statement.

Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor with Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, said the investigation is welcome but permanent housing is still needed for those living outside.

"There is cautious hope among those most affected by the city's overwhelming violence that, with a new ombudsman and explicitly calling it an investigation, this might be one part of a piece of getting some truth on the table to counter the political spin," he said.

"On the other hand, we know that this will not look into police actions or decision making and that the focus needs to be on real, permanent housing for people before winter sets in."

The city cleared encampments in Trinity Bellwoods Park on June 22 and in Alexandra Park on July 20. It cleared part of the encampment in Lamport Stadium park on May 19, and then went back to clear it fully on July 21.

City spent nearly $2M to clear encampments
Lawvin Hadisi, spokesperson for Mayor John Tory, said in a statement on Tuesday that the city believes encampments are unsafe, unhealthy and illegal.

"The city has worked and continues to work to help people come safely inside. At the same time, city staff have worked to vaccinate our homeless population along with increasing physical distancing and enhancing infection protocols in our shelter system, Hadisi said.

"Mayor Tory remains focused on getting more supportive housing and affordable housing built so we can continue to provide safe, indoor shelter to people who need it and, at the same time, ensure that our public parks remain safe and healthy places for all residents to visit and enjoy."

On Sept. 17, the city announced in a news release that it spent nearly $2 million to clear the encampments. The city said the money was spent to enforce notices under Ontario's Trespass to Property Act, provide security, carry out landscaping and erect fencing in the three parks.

Trespass enforcement cost a total of $840,127, while landscaping and remediation of park grounds for public use cost $792,668 and fencing cost $357,000.

Police, including some on horseback, pushed dozens of people out of the parks this summer. Several people, including encampment supporters, were injured in clashes with police and several others were arrested and charged at the clearings and at a subsequent protest at a police station.

The majority of the alleged offences related to trespassing. The force also charged several people with assaulting peace officers.

Earlier this month, members of the homeless community and their supporters held a protest outside Toronto Mayor John Tory's downtown condominium demanding an end to the clearing of encampments and the dropping of trespass charges against those who live in the makeshift dwellings.

Ombudsman won't review conduct of Toronto police
Several at that demonstration alleged they had been assaulted by police during the clearings and detained in police vehicles for hours.

The ombudsman says the office does not have the mandate to review the conduct of Toronto police officers.

Encampments sprouted up in many city parks when the pandemic hit in March 2020.

Hundreds fled the city's shelters for fear of contracting COVID-19. Many encampment residents said they also left due to violence within the shelter system.

Data obtained by The Canadian Press shows a significant rise in violent incidents in Toronto's shelter system over the last five years.