Toronto city councillors pen letter calling for end to violence at homeless encampments

Five city councillors have released a signed letter calling for an end to violence during forced evictions at homeless encampments in city parks and arguing that Mayor John Tory’s approach has not been an effective solution.

In the letter, city councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam, Shelley Carroll, Mike Layton, Josh Matlow and Gord Perks wrote that they believe that the Moss Park encampment will be cleared by police in the coming weeks.

“In advance of this imminent clearing, we demand an end to the violence and extreme show of force. There is absolutely no need for batons, pepper spray or even guns, not when the work should be done by the City’s Streets to Home staff and other outreach workers,” they wrote.

Toronto police arrested 26 people at Lamport Stadium park on Wednesday while enforcing a trespass notice that the city issued to several large encampments last month. A day earlier, nine people were arrested after a similar clearing operation in Alexandra Park. 

Mayor John Tory’s office sent CBC Toronto a lengthy written response on Friday afternoon rebutting the councillors’ comments and praising the work done by city staff. 

“After thousands and thousands of visits offering housing before and after trespass notices are issued, there does come a time when an encampment cannot continue to occupy a public park, to threaten the safety and health of people experiencing homelessness, and impact the families and communities who rely on these parks,” Mayor Tory said in the statement.

Demonstrators attempting to topple a fence are pepper sprayed by Toronto police officers enforcing an eviction order at an encampment at Lamport Stadium on Wednesday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Protesters injured, pepper-sprayed during forced evictions

Videos circulating on Twitter show police pushing a row of protesters down to the ground at Lamport Stadium park, and at least three supporters of encampment residents went to hospital, according to Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor with Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto.

Police also used pepper spray on several protesters. 

Police told the CBC that they made repeated attempts to engage with encampment residents and protesters to explain that they were required under the law to leave.

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, have both spoken out against the forced evictions. They endorsed a compassionate approach that would involve dialogue with encampment residents and a focus on housing solutions.

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, pictured, and four other city councillors wrote on Friday that they “demand an end to the violence and extreme show of force” by Toronto police at homeless encampments in the city. (Paul Borkwood/CBC News)

Letter calls on Tory to adopt human rights approach

The five councillors called on Mayor John Tory to adopt a set of recommendations submitted in an open letter by the Toronto Drop-In Network on July 9, which the councillors said has been endorsed by more than 200 organizations and individuals calling for a human rights approach to the conflict.

The councillors also said that they were “disturbed” to hear that members of the media were obstructed from reporting on the encampment evictions and that suppressing the access of the press to the events is “undemocratic and unconstitutional.”

A photographer with The Canadian Press was detained during the police operation in Alexandra Park on Tuesday, although police later said that he was detained by city security guards and that no charges were laid.

“Mayor Tory, your approach to encampments does not effectively resolve the challenge we face, as you are only moving people experiencing homelessness from the parks to laneways, under bridges or into another park. Absolutely no one voted for this extreme show of force that keeps happening under your authority,” the councillors wrote in the letter.

“We all recognize that a tent will never be a suitable replacement for a home but an alternative approach must be taken, as we can not accept more violence and conflict.”

Protesters were at Lamport Stadium ‘to confront the police’: Tory

In a rebuttal to the councillors’ letter, Tory said that encampments are “unsafe, unhealthy, and illegal” and that outreach workers have referred 1,770 people from encampments to safe indoor housing since April 2020.

“On Wednesday, more protesters were urged to show up outside Lamport Stadium — many more than at Alexandra Park — and, as I understand it, some made it clear to our City officials they were there to confront the police,” he said in the statement sent to CBC Toronto.

Tory added that the city has spent $600 million on shelter and housing for people this year and announced nine new supportive housing projects “consisting of more than 700 new homes across the city.”

“There are some councillors who in their public comments on encampments continue to ignore the work our hardworking City staff do to ensure our shelters are as safe as possible, that our shelters are free of COVID-19 outbreaks (as they have been for more than five weeks), and to reach out to people in unsafe encampments and encourage them to have safe indoor shelter with proper supports and a pathway to permanent housing,” Tory said.

“Some of these very same councillors in past years have advocated for an expansion of the shelter system that they now suggest is inadequate.”

He went on to say that the “majority” of the recommendations advocated by the councillors are already being done by the city, “including expanding processes to engage people with lived experience and shelter users on service improvements and developing guidance materials on bed checks, food and nutrition.”

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