The following is a submitted Op-Ed. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of The Kingstonist.
Nearly one year ago, Belle Park became the epicenter of the homelessness crisis in Kingston. With rising COVID-19 case numbers, declines in shelter capacity to accommodate social distancing, and stringent isolation requirements in order to access shelters, people found solace and safety in a space that was near to services they regularly utilized. At a time when everyone was being asked to stay home, those without housing built a community where they could survive.
What followed was a long-overdue dialogue amongst the municipal government and citizens about homelessness in our city, the adequacy and appropriateness of services available for impacted individuals and the ethics of encampment evictions. Belle Park became a temporarily city-sanctioned encampment site where city programs, community groups, and individuals joined forces to provide support through food, sanitation, and health and social services to residents. A campground became a community; residents felt a sense of belonging, safety, and permanence that could not be found while sleeping on the streets or shelter-hopping.
However, on September 1, 2020 By-Law 2009-76 (prohibiting camping in public parks) was enforced and evictions began. Some residents secured long-term housing; many did not. The remaining residents were removed from Belle Park by police and by-law officers, the park was cleared, and, while some items were stored for safekeeping, many were not able to recover their possessions. The weather turned cold, and public discourse on homeless encampments faded into the background of the ongoing pandemic.
One year later, we find ourselves facing a nearly identical situation, with COVID-19 cases on the rise and surpassing numbers seen in the first wave. Add to this the exacerbated economic hardships caused by the pandemic, job losses mostly greatly affecting those in low-income brackets, an eviction crisis, an increasingly unaffordable housing market, and half of Canadians being on the brink of financial insolvency, and we must ask ourselves: why should this summer be any different from the last?
Yes, steps have been taken with the creation of the Integrated Care Hub (ICH), which provides diverse programs ranging from harm reduction consumption and treatment services to the provision of food and a “rest zone.” However, the ICH is not a solution for everyone, and it is certainly not permanent housing. Permanent housing for all, of course, takes time and resources to implement, as is evidenced by the 1108 households on the social housing waitlist. In the meantime, with the weather warming, people are once again seeking refuge in public parks. How will the City respond?
City of Kingston’s Encampment Protocol
In March 2021, an information report was delivered from City staff to the Housing and Homelessness Advisory Committee which outlined how current and proposed practices in Kingston align with the UN Human Rights Council’s National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada. The report also overviewed encampment policies in Toronto, Hamilton, Peel, and Brantford, framed as “best practices” for Ontario municipalities. The report concluded with the City of Kingston Encampment Protocol and Procedures, which will be presented for approval at the upcoming City Council meeting on Tuesday, Apr. 20, 2021.
The proposed encampment protocol is “business as usual,” taking a relocation approach in order to firmly uphold By-Law 2009-76. Individuals found camping on municipal property will be served a 48-hour notice of trespass, during which time City staff will “provide ongoing supports and work with individuals to provide alternative service options.” Encampment residents who do not accept alternative service options will then be relocated through enforcement. While we do appreciate the effort to ensure that initial communication occurs with Street Outreach (rather than police officers), we lack confidence in the consistency of these measures, as we have already heard of instances where officers have intervened and removed individuals from their temporary housing solution without Street Outreach staff. Furthermore, we adamantly reject the notion that this strategy aligns with Principle 3 of the UN National Protocol, which prohibits forced evictions. Being pro-encampment is not “giving in” to homelessness and street-living; it is acknowledging, humbly, that city-sanctioned services don’t currently get the job done. As healthcare providers, we greatly fear the repercussions of encampment evictions, which are counter to Public Health recommendations. Being forced from one’s home is traumatic, and will push people into the shadows (as it did last year during the forced eviction of Belle Park), away from life-saving services; it will also fracture any trust that the City hopes to gain amongst its most vulnerable citizens.
This policy predictably falls in line with strategies used by other municipalities, including Toronto and Hamilton. But where is the logic in looking to strategies that have arguably failed? Just this month in Toronto, encampment evictions were put on hold after a number of shelter outbreaks of COVID-19, followed by protests against evictions by both health providers and lawyers. Likewise, shelters in Hamilton have been grappling with outbreaks amongst both residents and staff. Kingston, why do the same when we can do better?
A different perspective on ‘best practices’
Let us be clear: the appropriate response to homelessness is secure, safe, affordable, long-term housing. Everything else will be only a temporary fix. Some temporary fixes are preferable to others, however, and removing people from their chosen home should never be an acceptable solution.
Issues with shelters extend far beyond capacity, vacancy, and physical distancing requirements. Some people choose to live in encampments because they feel unsafe, disrespected, or unwelcome at shelters. We suggest a different perspective on best practices – one that honours people’s autonomy and privacy, and is accessible to all.
In Kingston, crowdfunding has secured temporary accommodation in hotels for those experiencing homelessness; this venture could be municipally supported, as an alternative to shelters, for all those who want it. Kingston is also the proposed site of the Homes for Heroes project, a village of transitional, self-contained housing for veterans; this project should be monitored and expanded if successful. The City must also urgently move forward with their proposed plans for supportive and transitional housing at 113 Lower Union Street and 805 Ridley Drive. Finally, as they did temporarily last spring, City Council must pause injunctions on encampments in order to meet and support people where they are at. These solutions, implemented concurrently with intensified efforts to secure affordable, supportive housing, are our proposed “best practices.”
Encampment strategy or eviction strategy?
In short, what City staff have proposed is not an encampment strategy; it is an eviction strategy. While the City of Kingston is not legally beholden to the UN protocol, this is irrelevant if we claim that we want to govern with a human rights approach. Whether we like it or not, encampments will continue to exist in Kingston. Councillors, City staff, outreach staff, and harm reduction workers are stretched thin; why waste time planning for evictions, when we could be developing networks of support, re-allocating resources, and expanding and re-imagining services as they currently exist?
We call upon City Councillors to reconsider the notion that encampments are not a viable option while awaiting permanent, affordable, acceptable housing. We cannot evict people while not providing what they perceive to be an acceptable alternative. We need more than a by-law review; we need a by-law revolution.
Written by members of Health Providers Against Poverty Kingston
Contact: Angela Salomon (Twitter: @angiesalomon)