Sarah for Mayor

Encampments, Parks and Housing: Treat the symptom, and find the cure

The tent encampments that have sprung up in cities around Canada and the US are a source of conflict, and Toronto is no exception. As with many issues in this city, polarization around what to do about them – and the people living in them – abounds. Police swoop in to remove people forcibly as activists protest and people put  “I support my neighbours in tents” signs on their lawns. Videos of black clad and yellow vested armed people in physical conflict with people in encampments, either protesters or those living there to begin with evoke powerful emotions in us – rage, grief or sadness to name a few.

To know how to approach this, we must move through these emotions and then go to a place of problem solving. Encampments are merely a symptom of the lack of both housing and public space in Toronto, so while we must address the symptom since it has become a genuine issue, we have to act on the root causes if we are to truly find a solution.

First, how to deal with the symptom. As with all things, prevention must be the first place we turn. We simply do not have enough parks to allow them to be converted to private housing of any kind. Once you establish a structure in a park, whether it’s a triplex or a tent, you are effectively privatizing the space your structure occupies. If  nearby bushes are used as toilets, or picnic space as biohazard depots, that space becomes unavailable for public use. Rather than being places for substandard housing or garbage dumps, our parks can be green and verdant havens, with plentiful access to fresh drinking water, clean public bathrooms, trees to provide shade and lawns to provide picnic or napping space. They can be places where we connect in music, in games, in sport or simply through smiles exchanged with neighbours, both those who are millionaires, and those living in poverty. 

Instead of police arresting people after the problem has been created, we could prevent it. What if we had city staff come out of their fluorescent lit offices and into the outdoors as park ambassadors? Ambassadors could be there every day, getting to know the park users (and their dogs), tending to the grounds, and maintaining amenities from toilets to tennis courts. Local politicians could join them periodically so they get first hand knowledge of the park community. If someone wanted to erect their own private housing on park grounds, ambassadors could let them know before they do so of the rules around public space and inform them of the available options for shelter . Only as a very last resort would the police ever be involved, and perhaps in a people supportive park as I’ve described, encampments of the magnitude we have seen would never develop.

Now let’s look at the root causes. When it comes to parks, we can create more of them (and more public bathrooms and water stations) that both increase the total amount of green space in this city and address the inequitable distribution that leaves the most vulnerable in this city with the least access to green space. That access is critical because it serves mental health by reducing stress and creating social bonds between neighbours, it also serves physical health by providing a space to exercise people and pets, giving relief from the concrete heat of the city, and filtering the very air we are breathing. And, along with helping us, our parks can serve as a refuge for both wildlife and plants that bring joy and beauty to our lives.

As for housing, there are a myriad of solutions. It makes sense to have emergency shelter options, but they should be for the very short term only. For the long term, we need to increase access to housing. Some ways to do this we could act on today – like doing away with restrictions (poorly enforced anyways) that prevent people from easily renting out space in their homes – while others – like repairs to public housing and the construction of new rental – have longer timelines that could be sped up. We can also open our minds to new ideas – how about adding 3D printing houses made from mushrooms to our menu of options? Or, instead of people living in tents on Allan Gardens, what if we replaced a lane of Gerrard with a row of tiny houses. If residents want to camp in the middle of the city, why not look at converting parking lots or concrete into micro campgrounds? 

This summer, the existing city administration could take a variety of non confrontational approaches to ask whether they can help encampment dwellers move elsewhere. No matter what, there is no need to have another violent confrontation that only further divides communities and is temporary in its effect at best. As temperatures diminish in the fall the number of encampments will drop and another symptom of our housing challenge will emerge. But by next spring, we can prevent the recurrence of encampments with compassion and creativity, and be on our way to eliminating the root causes that caused them.

Its the choice that matters