Toronto watchdog to investigate clearings at homeless camps

Toronto’s new ombudsman, the independent watchdog that reviews staff actions, will investigate the cleanup of the city’s homeless camps.

“The investigation will focus on how the city of Toronto planned the camp clearances, engaged stakeholders, and communicated with the public, as well as the policies and procedures that guided its actions,” according to a Tuesday press release from the Kwame Addo ombudsman’s office. , whose mandate began on August 23. He was previously the city’s interim ombudsman and the office’s director of investigations.

Behind the scenes, the Star has learned that the city has been quietly trying a new approach to the camps.

The ombudsman’s investigation was prompted by several complaints to the ombudsman about the clearings, Addo said in the statement.

It will not cover Toronto police, which was criticized for a heavy-handed approach to protesters. “This is beyond the mandate of the Toronto Ombudsman,” according to the press release.

News of an investigation comes ahead of a council meeting where Councilors Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 13 Toronto Center), Josh Matlow (Ward 12 Toronto-St. Paul’s) and Mike Layton (Ward 11 University-Rosedale) will request more information to staff about the clearings and request a judicial investigation into the recent clearings.

The city has cleared numerous campgrounds throughout 2021, including large parks and small medium-sized roads.

To clean up the larger campgrounds at Trinity Bellwoods Park, Alexandra Park, and Lamport Stadium Park, the city says it spent nearly $ 2 million, including $ 840,127 for city and private security, police, fire and paramedics, in addition to the removal of debris and personal protective equipment. Another $ 792,668 was spent on cleanup and remediation, while the city said it cost $ 357,000 to put fences around the old camps.

Mayor John Tory has supported the camp clearings, citing the health and safety risks of living outdoors, while saying the shelter system provides a “pathway to permanent housing.”

But city data showed that only nine percent of former camp occupants who entered the shelter system between March 13, 2020 and July 15, 2021, or 139 of the 1,536 former camp occupants, they had moved into permanent or temporary homes.

Since August, the city appears to have expanded its outreach and housing efforts to a remaining camp at the west end of Dufferin Grove Park.

“It’s been a different approach the last two months,” said Sanctuary Ministries outreach worker Doug Johnson Hatlem. “They have been doing identification and tax clinics for people. They call it something like a pilot project, but this is really the original approach, and that’s why they called it Streets to Homes – the idea of ​​bringing people directly from the outside into the house. “

Coun. Ana Bailão, who represents the area, said that the effort to house the camp’s occupants has involved numerous community, housing and health organizations. She told the Star that she was now visiting the camp on a weekly basis as well.

“It’s like any community, you have different needs,” Bailão said when asked about the approach. “When it comes to camping, not everyone has the same need and not everyone is in the same place.”

Winter was fast approaching, he noted.

He also emphasized that the outreach at Dufferin Grove was not entirely new, but rather an escalation of past strategies that he hopes is taking place in other parks in the city as well.

“I think there is a more practical and more individualized approach that we started with Dufferin Grove, but I think it is definitely happening in other parks as well,” he said.

At least one person moved into a permanent home this week, Johnson Hatlem said. He praised the approach for being more effective, but was concerned that as people in other camps found out about the project, they would have pitched tents in Dufferin Grove as well.

He said he hopes decision makers will not use the size of a camp as a metric for success, but rather, how many people had voluntarily moved indoors.

“Some people have accepted refuge space in hotels, and now they are actually moving people enough in the process to get into the house,” he said. “For our people who would not accept refuge hotels or other places of refuge, working with the city … is really effective and very successful.”

In an email, the city said that between Aug. 11 and Sept. 27, five occupants of the Dufferin Grove campground had signed leases and received keys to the unit, while 11 were going to view or sign contracts. lease. The identification of 15 people staying in the park was processed and obtained, the city added.

Members of the public can write to the ombudsman about this investigation by emailing [email protected] or by phone at 416-392-7062.

Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto reporter covering city hall and city politics for The Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags

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