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Statement by Inner City Health Associates: Toronto Homeless Encampments and the Right to Housing

April 4, 2021 – News

April 4, 2021 –  Since trespass notices were issued March 19th in encampments in Toronto, ICHA has been increasingly concerned about the current and potential impact on the health of encampment residents and have received reports of their confusion and fear about safety, and potential loss of property and supportive relationships.

It has been ICHA’s consistent practice throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to work constructively with hospital, community health, social service and housing organizations, and City of Toronto program divisions to protect the health of people experiencing homelessness. Those efforts have embraced everything from primary care, to mental health and substance use and palliative care, to assistance with COVID testing, isolation and vaccinations across settings, including in encampments. 

Despite the significant and sustained efforts made during the pandemic to help sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons transition to temporary hotels and permanent housing, the number and size of encampments across Toronto has increased. This is indicative of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people experiencing homelessness, racialized communities and those living in poverty.

Homeless encampments are a complex and predictable response to inadequate and inequitable distribution of affordable housing, shelter, health, legal, income, and social supports. The pandemic’s calamitous economic disruption has driven more people into encampments. At the same time, the spread of COVID-19 and its more transmissible and dangerous variants of concern within the shelters and hotels has made the thought of moving indoors a frightening prospect for many in the homeless community.

For years, ICHA has taken a firm position endorsing and supporting the right to housing and its close alignment with the right to health, as articulated in the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR Article 11.1) and now in the National Housing Strategy Act. ICHA’s 2018 position statement on the National Housing Strategy, Just Healthy Housing: A Position Statement from Inner City Health Associates, and our Mission’s inclusion of advocating for “peaceful, secure and dignified housing for all” reinforce our commitment to those rights.

The Right to Housing includes explicit provisions on the rights of encampment residents, including the provision of health and social supports within encampments, meaningful engagement for self-determination of housing transitions, and a prohibition on forced eviction.  Guidance from the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, expressed in A National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada, speaks directly to these, and other, provisions.

The health impacts associated with encampments are complex and variable. In non-pandemic periods, the illness and death rates of chronically unsheltered persons are significantly greater than sheltered homeless and housed persons. This underscores the need for robust supports in encampments, including access to water, toilets, fire safety supplies, and harm reduction and health services. In the pandemic context, COVID circulates and causes outbreaks in both shelters and encampments, making it at times difficult to identify in a generalizable way the safest places to stay. Such assessments – like most health decisions – are unequivocally individual, requiring informed and voluntary decision-making to be effective and respectful of the complex adversities people living in encampments face.

Given that public health guidance has advised that forced displacement of people from encampments presents a risk of COVID-19 community spread, it is in the best interests of both encampment residents and wider communities – and a requirement of human rights law – to prohibit forced evictions, to support encampment residents while on site, and to enable voluntary housing transitions towards permanent and, if necessary, supportive housing when safely possible. ICHA is dedicated to these health and human rights ends and will continue to work with all partners to ensure that encampment residents’ rights to health and housing are respected, protected, and fulfilled.