The number of people visibly living in settlements has increased throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This has led cities – including Toronto, Victoria and Vancouver – to work with the residents of the camp to move them to shelters, hotel spaces and, more rarely, stable accommodation.
As researchers working to improve the health and well-being of homeless people, we are deeply concerned about the long-term consequences of this approach. Not only is it morally questionable to punish the most vulnerable, it is not an effective strategy to tackle homelessness. The criminalization of poverty does not work.
Camp life is difficult
The first step in solving this problem is to understand the answer to this fundamental question: why do some people in the camps insist on staying where they are?
Camp life is difficult. Year round exposure to the elements and lack of running water or sanitation can make daily survival a huge challenge. However, some do not feel safe in the accommodation spaces offered to them.
Although the City of Toronto reports that 1,670 people were referred inside places since April 2020, only nine percent of these people were transferred to stable accommodation. The rest are still in shelters or hotel rooms. With little hope of moving to stable housing, people may be skeptical of leaving camps and getting stuck in the shelter system.
Other camp residents may feel that their mental health and well-being depends on the support systems they have in place in their camps. Being homeless comes with a strong stigma and social exclusion, but a camp can be a place of belonging.
Camps are not long term options. People cannot live in public parks indefinitely, and no one is advocating that as a solution. However, the forced displacement of people from settlements destroys trust with service providers and in fact makes it more difficult to convince people to move into shelters or hotel rooms.
For indigenous peoples living in settlements, forced evictions can be linked to intergenerational memories and trauma of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and other colonial practices. Exacerbating trauma and disrupting trust can take people away from the very services we try to connect them to, including housing programs, mental health supports, and COVID-19 vaccination efforts.
The end goal is stable housing. The encampments are the result of a national housing and affordability crisis. As we demand a real solution – an increase in the supply of housing and related supports – evictions from settlements must end. We must make the encampments unnecessary.
Build trusting relationships
We can make camps unnecessary through a person-centered, trauma-informed approach that builds trusting relationships between service providers and clients. Not all people have the same needs and we need to offer people a range of options: hotel spaces, rent supplements, case managers, peer helpers and other health and social supports. .
When we provide spaces for people, we need to recognize that people are part of existing communities and that these connections are essential to their well-being. Allowing people to travel in groups to the same places can help people overcome social isolation, stay housed, and support their mental health.
Incredible work has already been done. In September of last year, the federal government announced goal to end chronic homelessness. During the pandemic, the federal, provincial and municipal governments resources mobilized, solutions developed and efforts coordinated in an unprecedented manner – including in the camps – and supported investments in the development of affordable housing.
Some cities, such as Victoria, have committed to transformation of the homeless service system, rooted in an approach to housing rights and human rights.
We hope that the unprecedented efforts of governments and community groups are just the beginning of a more humane, cohesive and meaningful life. evidence-based approach to fight chronic homelessness in Canada. There is momentum now, and with it, the newly elected federal government has the opportunity and the responsibility to move people off the streets to safe and permanent homes.