In a meeting with housing advocates last month, city staff dismissed calls to temporarily allow unhoused people to camp in city parks – and warned that encampment evictions will continue, according to one person who was present.
The meeting came the day after city workers, backed by police, shut down an encampment in James Stevenson Park in East City.
“They were clear in that meeting that they … were going to continue to evict and they weren’t considering a change,” said Debbie Carriere, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Peterborough. “They also were clear that they had no other active solution for the people that they were moving at the time.”
Chief administrative officer Sandra Clancy and community services commissioner Sheldon Laidman attended the June 15 meeting of the Built for Zero committee, City spokesperson Brendan Wedley confirmed by email. The committee meets regularly and is made of members of several local organizations working to end chronic homelessness.
Advocates like Carriere had wanted to discuss an open letter, with more than 800 signatures, calling for the City to pause encampment evictions and open a park for people experiencing homelessness to camp in until suitable shelter or housing is available. The letter has been endorsed by several local organizations, including the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough, the Elizabeth Fry Society, the Brain Injury Association Peterborough Region and One City Peterborough.
But Clancy and Laidman were “not open to discussing” what the letter asked for, Carriere said.
“I just don’t know how to get them open to the conversation,” Carriere said. “We can’t approach this by trying to erase the problem. The problem exists so we have to talk about it.”
“Housing is the goal,” city says
Staff explained at the meeting that it’s illegal to erect a tent in city parks, which are meant to be “for the shared use and enjoyment” of the entire community, Wedley said.
He said there are safety concerns around people “living outside in the rough without access to washrooms, exposed to the extreme heat and cold in the summer and winter,” and that the City’s priority is to get more people into housing.
“Safe, stable housing is the goal,” he said.
Since the start of 2021, about 351 people experiencing homelessness have secured housing thanks to the “housing first approach” that the City and community agencies have taken, he said.
He noted that the Peterborough Housing Corporation is working to build more affordable housing and that the City also makes use of provincial and federal programs that create affordable units in the private sector.
“In total the City is providing funding to support over 2,700 households with affordable housing which represents approximately 5 percent of all households in the City and County combined,” he said.
He also noted that the City and partner agencies provide “close to 100” emergency shelter beds.
City, advocates dispute whether there are enough shelter beds
The availability of shelter beds has been a key point of contention between the City and housing advocates.
Under the Parks and Facilities by-law, the CAO can allow tenting in parks if the number of people in need of shelter in the city exceeds the number of shelter beds.
The open letter argues that tenting should be allowed because shelters are frequently full or near maximum capacity.
The average occupancy rates for Cameron House, the Wolfe Street Overflow Shelter and Brock Mission were all between 87 and 93 percent during the first quarter of 2022, according to a staff report.
And advocates say that even when beds are available, some people face barriers to getting one.
“Due to shelter restrictions (colloquially known as bans), a desire to care for a pet, substance use and/or mental health challenges, there are people for whom the shelter system is not accessible,” it says. “Without shelter as an option, these individuals have few, if any, legal places to exist.”
But Wedley said there is capacity in the shelter system and that when beds are full, the City provides “temporary alternative accommodations.” He said that anyone who can’t access the shelters should contact the City’s social services department “to connect with support services that may be available.”
There were 317 people known to be homeless in Peterborough in April, according to a staff report, whereas there are around 100 emergency shelter beds. However, it’s unclear how many people are sleeping outside because the City’s total count of people experiencing homelessness also includes those who are couch surfing, sleeping in vehicles or have some other form of shelter.
Advocates call for dialogue
Despite efforts to tackle homelessness, many people continue to regularly set up tents in city parks. According to the letter, making it illegal to do so pushes people experiencing homelessness “further out of sight,” limiting their access to healthcare and housing services and causing “increased recurring trauma.”
Carriere said there needs to be an open dialogue about what to do about the situation.
“To not even be open to more discussion, at whatever level, is really sad to see,” she said.
Her frustration was echoed by Crystal Hebert, who was part of a group of protesters that gathered across the street from city hall on the day of the meeting with city staff.
She said there’s been “almost no response” to calls for the City to rethink its approach to encampments.
“The silence is speaking volumes,” Hebert said. “You can’t address what you’re not talking about.”
She said she has reached out to Clancy about the issue, without success. And while she has talked to Mayor Diane Therrien about her concerns, she said nothing came of it.
“I feel like I’m in the Spiderman meme where everybody’s pointing the fingers at each other about who’s responsible or who has the power to do something,” she said.
Therrien sent Peterborough Currents a statement that was a shorter version of the one provided by Wedley, stressing that the City’s goal is to get more people into housing. “More work needs to be done. The City is committed to these efforts,” the statement said in part.
The open letter was sent to all members of city council this past spring. Christian Harvey, executive director of One City, urged them to act on its recommendations at council’s May 30 meeting.
“We cannot punish our way to ending homelessness,” Harvey said. “As inadequate as it is, a tent is a person’s house and until the municipal government is able to offer an alternative, we are violating people’s human rights by making it illegal for them to set it up.”
Therrien thanked Harvey for his work, and then council moved on to other business without further discussion.
Halifax allows sanctioned encampments in four city parks
Other Canadian cities are also facing calls to permit encampments in parks, as the housing crisis continues to grip the country.
Halifax city council agreed last month to allow unhoused people to set up tents in four municipal parks, after tensions flared last year when police sprayed protesters in the face with chemical irritants and made a number of arrests during one encampment eviction.
“This solution sucks. It’s not a solution at all,” said Shawn Cleary, a Halifax councillor, in an interview with Peterborough Currents. “But it’s less worse than the status quo.”
He said that repeated encampment evictions cause harm to unhoused people.
“We don’t want to have to move people every day, every week,” he said. “That adds to the levels of trauma that they’re already dealing with.”
There will be a limit on the number of tents allowed in each of the four approved areas, which combined will accommodate “30+ people,” according to a report by Halifax city staff.
Campers will also be expected to adhere to noise bylaws and a ban on fires, the report said. Needle disposal boxes will be provided at the sites, as well as portable toilets where there aren’t public washrooms onsite.
Halifax Mutual Aid, a group that builds wooden shelters for people experiencing homelessness, tweeted after the vote that legal tenting sites with washrooms and potable water are “a public good that we should all support.”
But the group said the plan does not include enough approved sites for all of those needing shelter and that people camping in unapproved areas will now face increased policing.
Halifax city staff say they have received hundreds of complaints about encampments in city parks in recent years.
Cleary said some of those complaints from residents are legitimate, “but there’s also, frankly, a lot of NIMBY-ism in a lot of that as well.” (NIMBY stands for Not in my backyard).
He said that while residents’ concerns should be taken seriously, it’s also important to educate people so “that they feel empathy and can identify with the folks that are living in these tents and in these parks.”
Other cities have been reluctant to follow Halifax’s lead.
Kingston and Edmonton both recently rejected proposals to set up city-sanctioned encampments as pilot projects.
Peter Stroud, the city councillor who proposed the pilot for Kingston, said the City’s “law and order” approach to encampments has failed.
“We can’t just get into this cycle of evictions: they set up again, we evict them again, they set up again, and we evict them again,” Stroud told Peterborough Currents. “We have to try some new solutions.”
Instead of sanctioning encampments, Kingston council voted last month to spend $250,000 to expand a program that provides “sleeping cabins” for people experiencing homelessness on city-owned land, according to the Kingston Whig-Standard. The new investment will bring the number of cabins up to 20.