A Toronto city councillor and a high-profile doctor are speaking out against forced evictions of homeless encampments, saying the city must stop using police to push unhoused people out of public parks.
Coun. Mike Layton, who represents Ward 11, University-Rosedale, and Dr. Andrew Boozary, executive director of the University Health Network’s department of social medicine, say a compassionate approach that involves dialogue and that combines housing and health is needed to solve the problem of homelessness in Toronto.
Both say the violence that occurred on Wednesday at Lamport Stadium Park, which resulted in several injuries and more than two dozen arrests, was completely unacceptable.
“The actions that we saw today are extremely disappointing and disturbing,” Layton said.
“And I think, as a community, we need to find a different course for our city to take in order to help address the issue of homelessness and homeless encampments in our city. And it should involve a compassionate approach that leads people indoors, not by force or threat of force.”
Boozary, for his part, said a more humane approach is in order and the focus should be on housing solutions.
“We need a different path forward. This is not at all what we want to see in our city. And I have to believe that any city councillor, if they were there to see what happened, could not endorse such an approach,” Boozary said.
Layton and Boozary spoke after Toronto police officers helped the city to push unhoused people out of Lamport Stadium Park on Wednesday. Police arrested 26 people, including at least one encampment resident. Police said the arrests were made for such offences as assault with a weapon, obstruct police, assault peace officer, and trespass.
Videos circulating on Twitter show police pushing a row of protesters down to the ground. At least three supporters of encampment residents went to hospital, according to Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor with Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto.
“They came in to really hurt people,” Hatlem said.
Later, when protesters showed up at 14 Division to demand the release of those arrested, they were pepper sprayed. According to the Encampment Support Network, officers lined up in a row in front of the police division, then some officers pushed protesters to the ground after they were pepper sprayed in the face.
Layton said city council debated the issue of encampments about two months ago and some councillors advocated for a “different path,” informed by experts, that would involve talking to encampment residents and finding out why they are reluctant to come inside to shelters.
“There are reasons many of these people are unwilling or feel that it is unsafe to go inside and we need to understand those better in order for us to address them with the hopes that we can at that point bring them, either into a shelter situation, or more preferably, permanent housing, with whatever supports are necessary,” Layton said.
“There is something fundamentally wrong with the use of violence or the threat of violence in order to further criminalize homelessness in our city,” he continued.
“We all appreciate that it’s not healthy living in a park, and it’s no solution to homelessness just to allow people to sleep in a park. But that’s a mistake of every level of government. That’s on every level of government for allowing our homeless and shelter crisis to get this bad.”
In a statement released on Wednesday, the city said it was trying to persuade the encampment residents to move into indoor shelters equipped with the supports needed to help them.
“The city’s objective today was to peacefully encourage encampment occupants to accept safe, indoor accommodation, as it does daily with people experiencing homelessness across the city. Camping in parks is unhealthy, unsafe and illegal,” the statement said.
City taking ‘wrong approach,’ councillor says
But Layton said the city is taking the “wrong approach” and it will be measured by how it deals with the problem of homelessness.
Boozary, who has been outspoken about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Toronto’s low-income, racialized communities and the unhoused, decried the use of force against those experiencing homelessness and their supporters.
“I think that we are not going to police people out of poverty, especially in a pandemic, and we are not going to police people out of poverty, period,” Boozary said.
“Efforts to try to push people out of sight — it’s not in line from a housing as a human right perspective, nor is it a public health approach,” he added.
He noted that clearing encampments during a pandemic is not in keeping with advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC says: “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
Boozary said encampments are a symptom of a long-standing failure on the part of governments when it comes to housing and homelessness. Taking a police approach with communities that already do not trust public institutions will cause a lot of damage and erode any trust that exists, he said.
He said city council should take a zero homelessness, not zero encampments, approach.
Police say use of pepper spray is ‘lawful’
In a statement on Wednesday night, Toronto police confirmed they used pepper spray on protesters outside 14 Division.
“This is an ongoing and dynamic incident where officers have been injured as a result of large and hostile crowds outside of 14 division. Despite numerous attempts to engage the crowd and disperse them, they remain active,” Connie Osborne, spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service, said.
“Officers can use a number of lawful tactics in order to protect themselves and keep crowds under control, pepper spray is one of them.”
Aliya Pabani, a member of the Encampment Support Network in Parkdale, said she was pepper sprayed while waiting outside 14 Division for word of detained supporters inside the station. The network is an advocacy group that supports encampment residents.
“It was just kind of unbelievable in my mind. It was a continuation of the brutal, excessive force that happened at Lamport Stadium. It felt to me almost like it was a vendetta,” she said.
“To bring in mounted police to deal with peaceful protesters demonstrating at a jail support, demanding the release of people who were arrested, protecting unhoused people against violent eviction, it was really shocking to me honestly, the extent to which they escalated things with the crowd,” she added.
“They were actually throwing people onto the ground, while they were blinded from the pepper spray. I don’t understand how it could possibly be justified.”