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Affordable Housing Advocates Say Toronto Is Trying to Ban Homelessness

Proposed new bylaw raising fears that sleeping on the streets may soon be criminalized.

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Despite assurances to the contrary from the City, advocates for affordable housing are concerned that a little-known provision of a proposed new streets bylaw harmonization will effectively outlaw homelessness in Toronto.

The draft Streets Bylaw is an attempt to harmonize seven existing bylaws (one for each of the former municipalities, plus Metro Toronto) that govern what people can and can’t do on Toronto’s streets and sidewalks. It has been public since June 23, when the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee gave it preliminary approval. It has yet to be enacted, and entered public consultations yesterday.

The new bylaw has mostly to do with preventing street obstructions and regulating road work. The concerns some have are with one of its sections (§ 743-12, specifically), entitled “Camping, dwelling and lodging prohibited.”

The section says simply: “No person shall, without the approval of the General Manager, camp, dwell or lodge on a street” [PDF].

None of the previous seven bylaws contained language like that, according to a report by City staff. Yet staff maintain that the intent is not to give the City new enforcement powers, but only to clarify what powers the City already had.

“It was never our intention that [the draft bylaw] would be written for the purposes of using it as a dragnet to round up homeless people,” says Allan Smithies, project manager for traffic planning and right-of-way management at the City.

Smithies says camping and lodging on City streets was prohibited under the old streets bylaws, too—just not explicitly.

“It was covered under what was called an obstruction or encumbrance provision of those bylaws,” he says.

But Michael Shapcott, a director at the Wellesley Institute, a local social-justice think tank, believes the new bylaw, if enacted, would inevitably be used to make life more difficult for those without homes.

“The language itself is completely neutral,” he says, “but it is really targetting an activity associated with homelessness.”

“Sleeping is absolutely necessary for human beings to stay alive, and what this bylaw is saying is you can’t sleep in public places, and I think it’s going to very quickly get some attention.”

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Other housing advocates haven’t raised any alarms in the more than two months since the draft bylaw was released to the public, and Shapcott thinks this was an oversight. “This has been very much under the radar screen,” he says.

Kenn Hale, director of legal services for the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, also believes the draft bylaw’s language is designed to target the city’s homeless population.

“I don’t really know what it’s doing in this bylaw that’s supposed to be about digging holes in streets and things,” he says. “We are planning on speaking out against it.”

All of this comes at a time when the mayor’s close allies have been airing dissatisfaction with Toronto’s panhandlers in the media. “There are other jurisdictions that have strong panhandling laws in effect and that’s what we need here,” Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday told the Sun at the beginning of June. Mayor Ford himself put it even more bluntly in an interview with CityNews: “You warn ‘em once, warn ‘em twice, three times, and that’s it—you put ‘em in jail for a day or two,” he said, while describing his ideal panhandling policy.

Other municipalities have tried to enact legislation that bans activities associated with homelessness. In 2008, an anti-camping bylaw was struck down in Victoria, British Columbia, after activists challenged the law in court.

Toronto itself, in 2005, banned people from sleeping in public squares, and initiated its Streets to Homes program in an attempt to find housing for some of them.

Giorgio Mammoliti was appointed head of a homelessness task force by Mayor Ford earlier this summer. He did not respond to our request for comment on the proposed Streets Bylaw. Public consultation is ongoing; a schedule of open houses is available online [PDF].

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