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

June 3, 2021 – News

In response to trespass notices being posted in parks with encampments in March, Inner City Health Associates (ICHA) released a statement on April 4th affirming our commitment to the right to housing, including the prohibition on forced evictions under international human rights law, and the need for constructive solutions to homeless encampments.

Inner City Health Associates is very concerned about the May 19th attempt by police and security personnel to forcibly evict people living in the Lamport Stadium encampment. Homeless encampments are a complex, difficult and divisive issue, particularly during a pandemic, and any solutions must be legal, safe, healthy and effective.  

Forced encampment evictions are illegal under human rights law. Canada has affirmed this internationally as a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the National Housing Strategy Act, 2019 explicitly recognized the right to housing. Rights-compliant approaches to supporting effective housing transitions for residents of encampments exist and protocols have been established, including one authored by the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing.  Such approaches fulfill the respective legal rights of all, protect the most vulnerable from harm and create respectful, principled and durable solutions.

Forced encampment evictions are dangerous for everyone and re-traumatize people experiencing homelessness. Any attempt at the forced removal of people and property carries significant risk of physical harm, injury and suffering. When groups of people with historical and enduring experiences of violence, intimidation and harm are forced to leave their home and community, it is particularly re-traumatizing and can have long-lasting mental health impacts.  Solutions to encampments must protect the safety of the most vulnerable and health supports must be provided before, during and after transitions in housing.

Forced encampment evictions harm health, particularly for the most vulnerable people living in encampments.  Forced evictions tend to disperse people to other public spaces, most often those less publicly visible and/or accessible.  Such dispersal leads to significantly enhanced vulnerabilities and health risks for those displaced, particularly for women, people with disabilities and mental health conditions and people using substances.  Such newly established encampment spaces are also less accessible to healthcare and social service providers, exacerbating the adverse health impacts of displacement. In the context of the pandemic, public health authorities have noted that forced displacement does not confer health protection and that it can lead to increased risk of community spread of COVID-19.

Forced encampment evictions fail to achieve their stated aims of ensuring that no one must  live in public encampments.  While some will temporarily or permanently come indoors following forced evictions from encampments, many others will scatter to other public locations.  As violations of human rights, however, forced evictions create unnecessary polarization and erode trust. This undermines the ability to successfully achieve durable, voluntary and rights-compliant paths to encampment closures and reduces successful housing transitions.

Throughout the pandemic, much and many collective resources, supports, and services have been mobilized to protect people experiencing homelessness.  Although insufficient, thousands have been housed permanently and/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. Those in encampments have received support from numerous caring communities, teams and organizations. 

Understandably, many in encampments still fear outbreaks of COVID-19 that continue in shelters and hotels. Others are too vulnerable and find it difficult to live in large concentrated groups. Others still  are unable to comfortably and effectively follow the personal and social restrictions of these spaces. Such concerns and reservations are reasonable and predictable and must be accommodated to build effective paths to shelter and housing for people living in encampments.

Like the achievements that have been accomplished for people experiencing homelessness to date, there are legal, safe, healthy and effective ways to resolve the challenges posed by encampments.  The right to housing establishes not only the legally required direction, but one that crucially is both principled and effective, permitting our collective reopening of society to occur in a way that doesn’t intentionally come at the cost of harm to the most vulnerable.