Publications, opinions, and speeches
The City must work with people living in encampments – not evict them
Published on 28/06/2021
This Maytree opinion is part of our series, “A life with dignity: Towards economic and social rights for all.” Each month, we will explore how our collective choices are bringing us closer to – or keeping us from – what we need for every person in Canada to live with dignity.
Don’t let the impersonal, vaguely formal word “encampment” fool you. The issue that has neighbourhoods figuratively and police forces literally up in arms is not about a group of tents. It’s about people.
Encampments are communities of people living in tents or other temporary structures set up in public spaces such as parks, ravines, or roadside. They are the direct result of inadequate emergency housing and a lack of affordable long-term housing. But they are more than that.
Encampments are also a result of our society’s collective failure to ensure that people can find decent work or that people with disabilities have adequate income; a failure to ensure people can access mental health and addiction services; a failure to protect young people leaving the child welfare system, or to address the ongoing trauma of colonization and systemic racism. They are a result of the failure of our social systems to prevent people from becoming homeless, and to provide dignified supports for people who do.
In other words, encampments are a human rights failure.
For people who are living in stable homes without the imminent threat of eviction by force, it is easy to see the question as: Should encampments be allowed to remain, or should they be removed?
But the question should really be: What do the people living in encampments think?
Canada and the City of Toronto have both formally recognized the human right to housing – federally in the National Housing Strategy Act, 2019 and locally in the Toronto Housing Charter and the HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan. This recognition comes with the responsibility to act using a human rights-based approach.
The City must prioritize one human rights principle in particular: the meaningful participation of the people most affected. This must not remain at the level of principle. Participation must be effectively implemented.
Participation is something that many talk about, but not everyone does it well. While it is not simple, it is not rocket science, either.
First, start with purpose. What is the goal of engaging people in decision-making? Next, think about people. Who are the people most affected? Whose human rights are at stake? Finally, figure out a process. What tools will support people to engage with decision-making, and what resources do we need to make the process successful?
For example, if the goal is to find emergency housing for people, then we need to engage with each individual in a way that accounts for their personal circumstances, respects their right to self-determination, and supports them towards the outcome they want. This requires adequate staff and time to reach each person and build a relationship. Further, it requires a genuine possibility of choice. This means that enough appropriate, safe, and dignified services are in place to support people to leave the encampment. This means that a person’s actions are not compelled by the threat of ticketing or eviction.
Or, if the goal is improving the state of housing so that encampments are no longer needed, then we need to create opportunities for participation that will feed into systems-level decision-making, throughout the policy cycle. This would not, realistically, involve every person living in an encampment, but it must prioritize the people who are most affected. It might involve tapping into existing community leaders or networks, and supporting opportunities for them to emerge. At the same time, it should ensure that people have opportunities to speak on their own behalf, rather than relying solely on advocates or community agencies as intermediaries.
The processes used to engage people might look like established civic engagement tools, such as town halls or roundtable-type consultations. But they might not. The planning for participatory processes must be flexible and ideally be co-designed by the people who will participate. The process should focus on the needs of the people who need it most, not on those of the government or stakeholders who already have access to traditional engagement processes. Planning and implementing participatory processes will require resources, including dedicated staff time and a budget with money to compensate people for their participation, just for starters.
Accountability and transparency should be built into the process. For example, how will people’s input influence decisions? Are many options on the table, only a few, or just one? When can people expect to hear back about what decisions were made and why?
In practice, human rights-based participation means making a commitment, a plan, a budget, and setting up mechanisms for accountability and transparency. It means that all parties must be treated with respect, dignity, and a recognition of the various types of expertise and experience that they bring to the conversation. And it means trust.
Some might ask, How can we trust the people who live in encampments, when their decisions have led them to be homeless? In response, we might ask, How can we trust a system governed by leaders whose decisions have created a society where a person’s best option is to live in a tent in a park? How can we trust them?
Building trust takes time, commitment, and follow-through. Everyone involved must come to the table with good faith and a willingness to work together. It might feel risky – entering into new relationships often does. But the payoff will be better outcomes for people and for society.
To move towards lasting solutions and towards protecting and fulfilling human rights, we need to change the ways we think and the ways we act. To paraphrase an old adage, foolishness is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. Leaving people out of the decisions that affect their lives so profoundly is part of the wrong-headed decision-making process that led us to encampments in the first place. All paths forward on encampments must involve the meaningful participation of the people who are living in them.