TORONTO — It feels safer to live in a tent at a city park than to stay in shelters or hotels far from services during the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of homeless men and women told a Toronto court Thursday.
The group — which includes 14 people living in encampments and two activist organizations — is seeking an interim order to allow the homeless indviduals to stay in Toronto parks until a constitutional challenge of a city bylaw is heard.
The bylaw bans living or camping in parks after midnight.
The group fighting it claims evictions from encampments violate the rights of the homeless, while the city says the Charter of Rights and Freedoms doesn’t entitle members of the group to live in parks.
Selwyn Pieters, one of the group’s lawyers, said the homeless individuals are placed in harm’s way if they’re housed in shelters that have been subject to numerous COVID-19 outbreaks or in far flung hotels where they can’t readily access medical, mental-health and social supports.
“The applicants camped in parks because it is the only way they feel safe the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
Hundreds of men and women have fled shelters since the pandemic began and taken up refuge in encampments that have sprouted up across the city.
There have been 649 cases of COVID-19 in Toronto shelters and five deaths.
Pieters said the city’s threats to remove the homeless people from parks violates their charter rights, and said the city’s attempts to clear the camps are cruel.
Those living in encampments have been subject to shows of force by city officials and police, Pieters said. In one case, a man was offered a spot in a hotel but was then forced out of his camp by 30 city and police officers without being told what hotel he could stay at, the lawyer said.
Another man, Derrick Black, was offered a hotel space but declined because his social connections and services are near Moss Park, where he currently lives in a tent, court heard.
“If the city offers him the appropriate accommodation and housing support, I’m sure Mr. Black will gladly accept it,” Pieters said.
Black told The Canadian Press last week he’s hoping for permanent housing rather than staying far from services and living with restrictive conditions placed on those who have moved into hotels offered by the city.
The city said Black was offered a hotel room and a one-bedroom apartment, but declined.
The city told the court it has worked hard to make shelters safer during the pandemic and has found temporary or permanent homes for hundreds living in encampments.
It also argued that encampments are not safe, replete with violence, weapons and overdose deaths.
The city’s lawyer, Michael Sims, argued that the applicants were creating a false narrative in which they’re forced to choose between “supposedly safe encampments” and “supposedly dangerous shelters.”
The risk of catching COVID-19 in shelters is not as high as the applicants made it out to be, he said.
He also pointed to an incident in Moss Park in which someone dumped propane into an operating generator, causing a fire. It was one of 55 encampment fires between March 13 and the end of July, Sims said, noting that there were only 10 such fires over the same period last year.
Sims argued that the number of shelter spaces in the city is sufficient, but said he doesn’t have a “census with the total number of encamped persons in the parks.”
“There are spaces for everyone. They may not be their preferred spaces,” he said, noting that homeless people tend to prefer a spot in a hotel.
Justice Paul Schabas said he was concerned about making an interim order that would alter the law for all parks across the city, but wondered whether he was even able to make an order that limited encampments to some city parks.
Schabas also questioned the utility of barring the encampments.
“Inevitably there are going to be the people who, rightly or — as you say — wrongly, think the shelters are not safe, who think that the hotels are not safe, or they think the shelters aren’t safe and the hotels aren’t appropriate for them because of the isolation,” he said to Sims.
“We’re just going to have an endless series of, one might say, roundups, and very unpleasant bulldozing of tent cities and so on. Is that really in the public interest? We’re bouncing a problem down the road, rather than trying to find some medium here.”
The judge said he’ll have a decision in a few weeks.