Sometimes when I’m nice and cozy under the covers, pushing the nagging thoughts of my responsibilities off to the periphery of my consciousness and avoiding getting up, I’ll open Twitter and look for something to piss me off. Well, “look for” is an exaggeration, I open Twitter and something instantly pisses me off because the algorithm knows what it’s doing, and so do I, and I know tapping on that blue bird bitch is only going to go one way. Anyway, the other day I’m in position, getting ready to shovel more content into my reactionary reptile brain holes, when a particular morsel managed to grab my whole attention.
It was a thread by Global Toronto’s Katherine Ward, in which she had been live tweeting her coverage of what would turn into a violent clash between police and activists, supporters, and residents of a homeless encampment — a small community of people clustered in tents and improvised shelters — that had been set up in Lamport Stadium park in Liberty Village. Ward had shown up to the encampment at around 5:30am on July 21 under tense circumstances. The day before, there had been clashes at another encampment at Alexandra Park near Dundas and Bathurst, where police say nine people were arrested, including one Canadian Press photographer on assignment, and in June, residents of an encampment at Trinity Bellwoods were forcibly evicted as well.
The reporter had information that suggested the city would move to clear the Lamport Stadium encampment next, and boy was she right on the fuckin money. You know that part in Harry Potter where he’s in the headmaster’s office and Dumbledore makes him dunk his head into an old bird feeder filled with memory cum? Thumbing through this Twitter thread was like dunking my head into all the memory cum from dozens of evenings last summer spent doomscrolling past videos from the U.S. that looked very similar to the scenes Katherine Ward would spend the rest of her day diligently relaying to the public. Minus the tear gas, I guess, really dodged a rubber bullet there.
Anyway, by 6:42am, there was a drone in the air. By 6:44, ranks of Toronto corporate security and police, including some on horseback, were marching toward the park to the soundtrack of someone blasting the Imperial March, which is just classic comedy. At some point, orange security fencing was erected around the park, and cops started telling people they’d be arrested if they remained within the enclosure, warning residents to pack up, and just generally menacing the gathering crowd of camera-wielding anti-narcs. At around 1:15pm, the security fence was breached, and supporters of the encampment moved in and took positions behind a makeshift barricade of pallets (very Hong Kong, I like it) set up between the South side of the enclosure, where a large line of police had gathered, and the tents themselves.
At this point the whole situation is starting to feel like a petty, sad, and extremely one-sided Civil War battle, and at around 1:30, the police tore down the barricade, moved into the encampment, and began clearing it. This is where it got ugly. Ward’s posts show videos of police breaking up human chains by shoving people down and dragging them across littered grass to arrest them. They show police tearing at tents and ripping poles from their sleeves, which not only sucks because they’re probably destroying some of the only possessions these people have, but also because those things are a bitch to set up man, do you know how long that shit takes?
Another video from Global Canada’s Seán O’Shea shows one man on his back, struggling with two officers. Quickly, five more officers move in. Three appear to focus on keeping the crowd back, while one moves to assist the two on the ground. The fifth pulls out his baton, and someone shouts “get on the ground,” which I guess is just a default cop voice line given that three officers are literally holding this guy down. He responds, “I am on the fucking ground,” and someone yells “on your stomach, on your stomach.” While three officers roll him onto his front, the officer with the baton appears to jam it into his back once or twice, in the ribs or maybe a kidney, and then another presses his head into the grass, and a third kneels on his calves. O’Shea, narrating, explains that there have typically been “three or four officers per arrest.” As the officers finally slip the cuffs on, one says to the man, “you’ve made your point, that’s enough. That’s it, it’s done. You’re finished.”
Ward reported that it took police all of about 20 minutes to clear the camp, and then they moved to push bystanders out to the other side of the perimeter fence, arresting several more. At about 2:40, it was over. So, if you didn’t know how to clear a homeless encampment before, all you need is a monopoly on use of force, an orange fence, some dorky-ass bike helmets and yellow vests, maybe just a touch of brutality, and it’s just that easy, you’re welcome. Except, as you might have guessed, I have a teensy lil problem with this method: it doesn’t make any fucking sense at all.
It doesn’t make sense morally, it doesn’t make sense logically, and, according to some interpretations of international human rights norms, it doesn’t even make sense legally. We’ll start with the moral angle. Cops beating up the poorest people in our society and their community allies is bad. Also, destroying the property of people of whom we’ve decided the defining trait is a lack of property is bad. Okay, done with the moral angle.
Now, from a logical standpoint, does the city of Toronto truly believe that these people would rather camp downtown every day than be housed? I’ve been to Alexandra Park. It’s nice and it’s in a decent location, but I wouldn’t exactly get myself arrested trying to live there unless I felt it was absolutely necessary. The city has been quick to point out that it has offered alternatives to living outdoors to many encampment residents. A city statement regarding the Alexandra Park encampment stated “All individuals experiencing homelessness in this encampment … are being offered safe, indoor space, with access to meals, showers and laundry, harm reduction, physical and mental health supports, and a housing worker.” The statement does not make clear whether this indoor space offers privacy, something which is extra valuable in a pandemic, nor whether residents have been offered permanent housing.
Other city statements boast big numbers on the amount of times its staff has reached out to encampment residents (“more than 20,000 times”), the number of shelter spaces in the city (“more than 6,000”), its housing budget (“$365.8 million”), and so on. But in interviews that I looked at with media and community outreach organizations, as well as in a court hearing, many encampment residents say their options have not been clearly communicated to them. Others cite reports of an increase in violence at Toronto’s shelters and the danger of living in close quarters with others during a pandemic as reasons they’d rather live outside. These are problems the city surely has the ability to solve, and if I were them, I’d pursue every option I have before sending cops in front of cameras to raid a homeless community.
And it’s not like they don’t understand the optics. The encampments at Trinity Bellwoods, Alexandra Park, and Lamport Stadium were cleared when the city decided to enforce trespassing notices that had been issued to residents previously, but the same notices were issued to residents of a fourth encampment, Moss Park, at around the same time. In the aftermath of the action at Alexandra Park and Lamport Stadium, residents of the Moss Park encampment and their supporters have been bracing for a fourth raid, but nothing’s happened so far.
I’m speculating, but it could have something to do with the tremendous backlash and graphic imagery that have come out of their strategy so far. It would be nice if their next strat adheres to some common fucking sense, including the principle that, to borrow a phrase, “everyone is an expert in their own life.” Motherfuckers wouldn’t be living in tents if they thought they had a proper alternative, and bureaucrats loosing police on these already largely disenfranchised communities because they think they know better is clearly not going to make a dent in the problem.
I don’t know who said the “everyone is an expert in their own life” thing first, but it makes for a good transition to the next angle from which Toronto’s handling of homeless encampments makes no goddamn sense: human rights. This is because it’s the guiding principle behind an open recommendation letter to mayor John Tory and the Toronto city council regarding homeless encampments. The letter is called A Path Forward, co-authored by the Toronto Drop-In Network and signed by over 200 organizations, and it focuses heavily on what the authors call a “human rights-compliant approach” to handling homeless encampments. It draws on work by a housing-focused NGO called The Shift, which in 2020 published a report called “A National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada.”
The report was written by then UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Leilani Farha. It’s also 40 pages long, so I’ll read it for you if you e-transfer me like $30. Until then though, I can only give you an overview, but from what I understand, according to Ms. Farha, the city of Toronto checked all the wrong boxes for upholding the human rights of its homeless population. In order to be “human-rights compliant,” a government should not criminalize encampment residents, it should work with individual residents to meet their needs and listen to their concerns so as to preserve their dignity, it should not forcibly evict an encampment resident because “international human rights law does not permit governments to destroy peoples’ homes, even if those homes are made of improvised materials and established without legal authority” and should seek all available alternatives to eviction, it should ensure existing encampment conditions are compliant with human rights (i.e. provide water, waste management, fire safety, etc…), and finally, a government should seek to engage with Indigenous people in encampments in the context of their distinct rights.
Gonna be honest with you guys, I did not see a lot of any of that in Katherine Ward’s Twitter thread. And this report, and consequently the Path Forward letter, already takes for granted the idea that housing itself is a human right, as opposed to a commodity, which is how all levels of government see it. The issue of homeless encampments is a direct result of a steadily worsening housing crisis, which is affecting cities like Toronto at a dazzling pace. A prohibitive market driven by artificially low supply (you gotta love capitalism) has driven rent prices through the roof, and Doug Ford’s broken promise that “nobody will lose their home” during the pandemic (reporters have found that eviction hearings have in fact ramped up during this time) mean more and more people left without housing. To quote another person I don’t remember, “it is the great failure of the Canadian welfare state that housing was not considered a basic right.” Imagine we treated healthcare the same way we treated housing: you could fall victim to an unexpected illness or injury and be stuck paying off medical bills or be forced to go without treatment until you die. Wouldn’t that fucking suck?
And regardless of all of this — the idiotic decisions of the city of Toronto, the blatant disregard for people’s rights to housing and dignity, and the tragic decisions of previous generations not to guarantee those rights — people are still going to keep sleeping outside in parks. The city’s shelter system is by lots of accounts a disaster; its public housing system has been marred by apathy, scandal, and filth; and its attempts at outreach, when they aren’t actively destructive as in the case of Khaleel Seivwright (google it), are not well communicated or close to enough. This is a big fucking problem, and not just in Toronto, it’s a problem in almost every major city in North America. It’s not going to get better by cowering behind the status quo and only popping out every once and a while to throw some law and order around. Toronto and many other cities need to first get that through their concrete skulls, then figure their shit out, listen to people, and definitely stop saying that the fences are there “so that the grass can grow back.” Do you know how insane you sound touting the amount of money you spend on housing while paying for a fence and security guards to stop people from housing themselves? Now do you know how insane you sound doing that and lying about the practical applications of giant bright blue fences and security guards for fucking lawn care?? Please get a hold of yourself John Tory, the police need you to tell them which disadvantaged group they can go beat up next.