Signs erected to discourage park encampments make it harder to help the homeless, advocates warn

New signs in Toronto’s parks and green spaces that prohibit people from setting up overnight camps will make it harder for the city to help the homeless, advocates warn.

The signs reflect current statutes, the city says. They say park hours are between 5:30 am and midnight and that “visitors may not pitch a tent or structure” or “camp in the park.”

“It’s an exaggeration,” said Ceta Ramkhalawansingh, a Toronto civil servant and community activist.

“You shouldn’t impose that kind of blanket restriction on three million people who live in the city.”

Ramkhalawansingh posted a photo of a sign he found along the median of University Avenue. People have posted several new signs on social media that they have found in College Park, Dufferin Grove Park and others.

This comes just a week after CBC News reported on the city’s plan to hire private security guards to patrol some parks 24/7 to prevent a repeat of last summer, when 26 people were arrested when police and city workers cleared an encampment from Lamport Stadium Park. There were also violent confrontations as homeless people were evicted from Trinity Bellwoods and Alexandra Park.

The city maintains that the encampments are unsafe, unhealthy and illegal.

But Diana Chan McNally, a homeless advocate and community worker at the Toronto Drop-In Network, doesn’t think signs are a solution.

“The signs could suggest that, more generally, any member of the public could be excluded or fined, or even arrested, if they are in these spaces outside of business hours,” he said.

Homeless people will go ‘further underground’

While the combination of signage and security could prevent encampments in the particular parks under surveillance, McNally says it will only drive homeless people out of the city center toward North York or Scarborough, making them harder to find.

“People go deeper underground, deeper into ravines, deeper into more hidden spaces,” he said.

“We lose people, they disappear, we can’t communicate with them,” McNally added.

Diana Chan McNally, a community worker with the Toronto Drop-In Network, says signs and security patrols in parks will only drive homeless people out of the city center, making it harder for them to access support services. (CBC)

“If they are away from services, then they can overdose, injure themselves or go missing. So this strategy can do literal damage.”

The city says the signs are in accordance with its parks statute, which “prohibits encroaching on or taking possession of a park by installing a structure on park land, occupying a park for non-recreational uses, and camping, camping, or otherwise living way into parks,” city spokesman Anthony Toderian said in a statement.

Toderian said the city began posting signs this year at park entrance and exit points where campsites were found in 2020 and 2021.

“The reference to ‘Park hours 5:30 am to midnight’ is a reminder that overnight sleeping is not allowed in the parks,” Toderian said.

The city has ordered 380 signs and has posted 104 so far. Each sign costs $22 to $28 and the city has spent a total of $11,850 on signs and their installation.

The city says ordinance officers or contracted security guards will contact staff if they see people putting up a tent or other structure in a park, so the city’s Streets to Homes community workers can interact with the occupants and offer services and safe accommodation inside.

Toderian says it reflects the city’s commitment to a “housing first” approach.

While it is not yet known how much 24/7 park security will cost, McNally believes the city could spend more money to provide direct support services to the homeless.

“They’re not adding any value to social services directly,” he said, noting that pushing the homeless out of the city center will make the job of finding and housing them more difficult.

“In fact, there are outreach workers like Streets to Homes, whose literal job is to know where people are, and also to provide those services.”

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