A NEW PUSH IS ON TO CLEAR HOMELESS FROM THE VALLEY
AND IT’S COMING FROM THE DON’S ECO-DEFENDERS
By Kris Scheuer
(Published in NOW magazine March 23-30/06)
Through a break in a chain-link fence, over train tracks and felled trees and down slick mud banks – there’s no quick or easy route to this chaotic homeless encampment tucked not so neatly into a secluded corner of the Don Valley.
It’s a sanctuary from the bustle of the city, an ideal place to avoid society for my guide, Kurt, and seven or eight other homeless people who call this scattering of tents, sleeping bags and garbage home.
An estimated 111 homeless encampments are scattered throughout the city’s ravines, parks and woodlands, including many right here in the valley.
The city used to tolerate the people who call the valley home — but now a slowly building movement for their removal is theatening their riverbed shelters. It started when council passed a bylaw banning sleeping in Nathan Phillips Square and other public spaces.
Staff from the city’s Streets to Homes programs and other departments have been paying more regular visits to the Don.
Some 20 encampments have been cleared city-wide, and interviews with city staff suggest that more evictions are planned come spring. Streets to Homes says its forays are aimed at helping valley-dwellers find rental accommodation. But pressure for a heavier-handed approach involving stepped-up police enforcement is coming from a most unusual source: the chair of the eco group at the forefront of revitalization efforts in the valley.
John Wilson, chair of the city’s Task Force to Bring Back the Don, says vandalism, graffiti, garbage, “destructive partying” and “occasional stressful encounters between hikers/bikers and homeless people” are messing with the group’s good works and interfering with naturalists’, cyclists’ and walkers’ enjoyment of the valley.
“At some point I do think we need to start doing the eviction routine,” Wilson says. “I don’t know exactly what that point is, [but] we’re not doing people any favours by letting them live in the valley.”
Wilson has written police Chief Bill Blair asking for more regular patrols in the valley, currently not a policing priority.
“It’s a visibility issue as much as anything,” Wilson says. “[The valley] looks like a place you wouldn’t want to take your kids for a bike ride.”
“As a society, we have to do better. It comes back to more housing for people, more services for people,” Wilson says.
Those who work with the homeless argue that public space is the only space they have. And that any effort to take it away from them should be considered illegal. In some ways it’s even more important that those without homes have access to public space than the rest of us, argues lawyer Peter Rosenthal. “You conduct your whole life in public space.”
Wilson says he’s not advocating a clean sweep. “I don’t want to get into victimizing and laying blame on homeless people in general.”
But he argues that more of a police presence will become necessary to ensure safety as more people are drawn to the valley.
Councillor Jane Pitfield, who sits on the Task Force to Bring Back the Don and is also chair of the city’s advisory group on homelessness, says she’s “really happy” Wilson’s raising the issue of homeless people in the valley.
She says the safety of the valley-dwellers themselves must also be considered after last summer’s Don River floods left at least one homeless man stranded in a tree until an emergency crew could get to him.
“We need to ensure that people are not endangering themselves,” says Pitfield.
But whether the threat to the public posed by those living in the valley is real or perceived depends on who you ask. Toby Mullally, a Street Survivors outreach worker, says they’re being scapegoated. “Things that are the fault of criminals may be blamed on homeless people,” he says.
But at least one group conducting guided walks in the Don has hired security after the odd unfortunate encounter with a homeless person.
Cops at nearby 53 and 51 Divisions, on the other hand, can’t remember the last time they’ve had a report of a homeless person harassing or assaulting valley users. They send foot and bicycle patrols when they can, says Staff Sergeant Heinz Kuck, which usually means once or twice a week.
Kuck says, “Unless we get the go-ahead from the city, we cannot issue a trespass notice.” And that only happens after city social workers and bylaw officers have failed in their attempts to get the homeless to vacate encampments voluntarily.
That doesn’t mean, however, that they aren’t being moved out. Since last year, at least five encampments in the valley have been cleared after people there, according to city social workers, repeatedly refused help. In some cases sites were cleared after homeless people got housed. Other times they were sent packing after they refused help.
Sharlene Cobain, who works with the Streets to Homes program, says the city is trying to walk a fine line by luring homeless with the incentive of social services and housing.
“We don’t go in and just kick people out because sites are recognized as problematic or because it’s an issue for communities or groups,” she says.
But if the city’s strategy is all about helping the homeless, why pass a bylaw making it illegal for them to sleep out in public?
Says Mayor David Miller, “You have to house people, not help them survive on the street. In the long run, we are not doing people a favour if we don’t help them get the treatment and support they need to get off the street.”
According to the city, more than 580 street people have been housed since Streets to Homes came into being last year. And the majority have stayed housed.
Advocates for the poor, however, are skeptical about that number. Sarah Shartal, a lawyer points out that her clients are dealing with mental and emotional health issues, physical problems and addictions that make them chronically hard to house.
Others who work in the valley, like Alicia Odette, a registered nurse at Street Health, say the city’s aggressive efforts to move people off public property are just pushing the homeless further out onto the margins.
“I have noticed a difference personally, and I think the other nurses would agree that people are harder to find. They’ve gone deeper into hiding.”
Iain De Jong, the director of Streets to Homes, says he’d like to see the “hard evidence” to back Odette’s claim. “We continue to work with those people whose camps have been taken down.”
Lucy Stern, manager of community engagement for Parks and Rec, says two park ambassadors make sure the homeless know about rec services and programs. “Everyone is welcome to use our parks,” she says.
Yet when the rights of the homeless come into conflict with those of the public, it’s usually the homeless who seem to be losing the space.