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Egregious encampment evictions violate human rights and pose health risks

June 25, 2021 – News

The evictions at Trinity Bellwoods Park this past Wednesday were executed with an unseemly use of force and without due regard for the human rights and health of encampment residents.

ICHA Medical Director Dr. Andrew Bond said that the actions violated human rights law, re-traumatized vulnerable populations and compromised their access to health services. Despite this, the right questions are not being raised, especially the human rights question — and important issues related to the intervention’s effectiveness and its rationale are being overlooked.

Forced evictions violate the right to safe and secure housing which Canada committed to as a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and in the 2019 National Housing Strategy Act. Furthermore, no official public health opinion has been offered to support claims that forced evictions were prompted by the need to protect the health of encampment residents.

In fact, as ICHA highlighted in previous statements on encampments issued this spring, forced evictions harm health, particularly for the most vulnerable people, including those with disabilities, mental health conditions and substance use challenges. While some members of the homeless community have been housed, others have been driven to relocate to less publicly visible spaces that are hard for health providers to reach. Forced displacement can lead to increased risk of community spread of infectious diseases such as COVID-19 and its much more contagious variants – evidenced by the outbreaks in homeless shelters in Kitchener-Waterloo.

“Put simply, the evictions were strictly unnecessary and their execution egregious; all options had not yet been exhausted, “ said Dr. Bond, adding that it was unfortunate that the services of the former UN Special Rapporteur, the author of A National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada, were discontinued by the City. Those protocols support rights-compliant approaches that foster housing transitions for residents of encampments that fulfill all respective legal rights,  protect the most vulnerable from harm and create respectful, principled and durable solutions.

Homeless encampments raise complex, difficult and divisive issues, particularly during a pandemic, and any solutions must be legal, safe, healthy and effective.  Forced evictions do not end public encampments; they guarantee them. They deepen mistrust and polarization, undermining the ability to find durable, voluntary and rights-compliant paths for those most difficult to house and support.  

Dr. Bond says the forced evictions are particularly disappointing given the innovative and collaborative homeless-health services that have been provided by strong partnerships and caring communities throughout the pandemic. Thousands of people experiencing homelessness have been housed permanently or temporarily in hotels; isolation spaces have been created; testing and vaccination supports deployed; and mental health, peer work, harm reduction and clinical services established across the city, including in encampments.

It is reasonable that many encampments residents are fearful of the emergency and temporary housing  on offer, especially given recently revealed statistics showing significant increases in violence incidents in shelters.  Anyone with an understanding of the fragile conditions and traumatic life experiences of members of the homeless population will grasp why those vulnerabilities make it impossible to live in large concentrated groups without comprehensive supports or abide by the personal and social restrictions of these spaces.

“The decision to proceed with forced evictions at the Trinity Bellwoods Park encampment was a prioritization of recreation over human rights, an abject failure to protect some of the most vulnerable residents in the city,” said Dr. Bond.