A Toronto Star article published on June 10, 2022 revealed that the City of Toronto will be spending $1 million to contract a private security company to patrol the city’s parks this summer. The purpose of these patrols is to prevent encampments of homeless people from springing up as they did last summer.
Brad Ross, the city’s Chief Communications Officer, told CBC News in May 2022: “The static security allows us to keep a close eye on those parks that we know where encampments grew last year so that we don’t see a repeat of last summer […] We want to make sure that those individuals know that they have access to services before they set up an encampment.”
Ross is referring to last summer’s clearing of encampments at Trinity Bellwoods, Alexander and Lamport Stadium parks, in which city staff and police brutally attacked people living in the encampments and the community members who showed up to defend them.
According to CBC News and The Canadian Press, the city has spent months compiling a file on the various encampments which sprang up over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as working on detailed files of their occupants. The information gathered includes information on behaviours, health information and photographs of the parks’ occupants. Speaking to CBC News, Sanctuary Toronto’s Pastor Doug Johnson Hatlem called the surveillance “dystopian”.
Johnson Hatlem also shared his concern that increased surveillance and clearing of encampments will only serve to push homeless communities further “underground” and keep them even more isolated, noting that this increased isolation could heighten risks associated with the ongoing overdose crisis.
This summer’s plan for private security patrols—especially its $1 million price tag—has been decried by activists, social service workers, community members and city councillors alike. In particular, Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 4, Parkdale—High Park) shared his concerns that the contracts were not properly approved by city council and were instead awarded in two separate $500,000 contracts by city staff.
Whether or not the city toed the line in terms of how they approved the plan, the real question is why they approved the expense.
In 2021, the city spent more than $2 million clearing encampments across the city—money that would have been much better spent on affordable housing programs. The city reported that the people evicted from the encampments were provided support to find housing or shelter, but by October 2021 only eight per cent had secured permanent housing.
Encampments are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to homelessness. According to the most recent City of Toronto Street Needs Assessment (SNA) (April 2021), there are an estimated 7,347 people experiencing homlessness on any given night, including an estimated 742 who are sleeping outside (which includes encampments); the actual figures could be even higher, with some estimates placing the number of people sleeping outside each night closer to 1,500 and the total number without a home at 8,500 or more.
These numbers are not the result of a housing shortage: recent reports show that Toronto has 131,730 homes sitting empty, enough to house everyone currently homeless seventeen times over.
If the city really wanted to end homelessness, they would spend their money on building public and social housing, in addition to funding supportive housing, mental health and addiction programs. We need to immediately seize the thousands of unused homes to end the scandal of homelessness. Efforts such as security patrols, over-policing and mass evictions do nothing to solve the crisis, but instead push the issue out of sight.
Whether there are encampments in the city’s parks or not, people will still live and die on the streets while houses and condos sit empty.
The facts and figures of the homelessness crisis are those of the capitalist system in decay. Ultimately, capitalism will never resolve this crisis simply because it is not profitable to do so.