The Pandemic Accelerates the Rise⁠—and Criminalization⁠—of Tent Cities

    Just before we went into lockdown, I visited Sanctuary, a homelessness organization in Toronto, to interview people with experience of living in encampments or tent cities and of being “evicted.” In Toronto, an eviction notice is followed within days or even hours by bulldozers, trashing of painstakingly set-up shelters, and possessions being thrown out.

    Like other cities across North America, Toronto has been dealing for years with a growing crisis in affordable housing, resulting in deep housing insecurity, increasingly visible poverty, and overstuffed homeless shelters that are notoriously unpleasant to stay in. Tent cities and encampments in parks, ravines, abandoned lots and other places have become more and more common. As soon as one tent appears, then two, it becomes what comfortably housed neighbors describe as an “eyesore,” and then as a “danger to public safety.”

    By-laws and other regulations are used to enforce evictions. Greg Cook, an outreach worker at Sanctuary, told me that “the city’s putting together this infrastructure of displacement,” with parks workers and police officers both involved in getting people out of the homes they have set up for themselves and moving them along.

    At Sanctuary I met Scotty Don’t (his nickname, which he asked me to use). At 27, he has lived on or close to the streets since he was about 15. Other things I learned about Scotty: He started smoking cigarettes at around age eight, he’s a talented artist who loves to play with colours, and he learned CPR as a young cadet in the Canadian military—knowledge he recently used, he told me, to save a friend’s life. Scotty uses crystal meth for the energy boost and to feel warm during Toronto winters outside. He relies on fentanyl to bring him down when crystal is too stimulating, and on cannabis to “balance it all out.”

    Scotty has lived in tent cities, briefly had his own apartment, and spent this past winter in the doorway of a budget shoe store—before new management asked him to leave. At the time we spoke, he was sleeping in front of the local McDonald’s.

    “They’re too high up in the condo. Lack of oxygen is getting to their brains. That’s what me and my friends say, anyway.”

    Across Scotty’s knuckles, tattooed letters spell out “LIVE FREE.” A friend made it, using a home-made gun and piano wire for the needle. It’s a telling motto. Scotty feels anxious in shelters—noisy places with rules and curfews, violence and theft and, most importantly, too many people packed into a small space. He was waiting for a call from his housing worker, from a program called Streets to Homes. Affordable apartments are unbelievably rare in Toronto right now and he’d been waiting for that call for a long time. Tent cities or encampments are the next best thing. Yes, he likes the freedom. But he also likes the community.

    “It’s more stability, like an apartment,” he said. Sometimes, through various programs, people achieve their goal of housing but in doing so are forced to move away from the downtown. Still desperately poor, they still need the services, transportation, panhandling opportunities and social networks found in the inner city. Like others, Scotty has at times left shelters—like one winter respite space set up with mats and cots, in the ironically named Better Living Centre—in order to return to the city center, where his friends are.

    “When I want to get away from everybody, I’ve got a couple of places where everyone gets kicked out but security likes me because I’m respectful,” he said. “I know a lot of the construction workers around here. A lot of them help me every payday.” In contrast, “The condo people are pretty ignorant. They’re just stuck up. They’re too high up in the condo. Lack of oxygen is getting to their brains. That’s what me and my friends say, anyway.”

     

    A Universal, Longstanding Crisis

    The class divide Scotty described applies equally to San Francisco, New York, Vancouver, Philadelphia or any city where housing costs have long ceased to track working-class or middle-class incomes. A wealthy population, serviced by low-wage workers who commute from far outside the gentrified downtown, is surrounded by the extremely poor. Increasingly, people without housing are setting up encampments, or tent cities, in all of these places.

    San Francisco’s roughly 8,000 homeless people, representing a rate of 821 homeless people per 100,000 residents. Seattle has 1,274 homeless people per 100,000; Washington, D.C. 1,134 per 100,000; and Boston 933. Rates of homeless people who are not sheltered (in shelters or transitional housing, say) vary:  Most of Boston’s unhoused people, for example, do have a place to stay, however inadequate. But more than 58 percent of San Francisco’s homeless population actually live on the streets; and a staggering 74 percent of homeless people in Los Angeles were unsheltered on the night of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s January 2019 count. Unsurprisingly, tents line whole blocks of LA’s Skid Row.

    These numbers demonstrate the extent of the crisis before the pandemic—but not the acceleration of that crisis, amid large-scale loss of jobs and services, in recent months.

    Toronto’s gentrification, commodification of housing, facilitation of evictions and criminalization of the resulting public misery are echoed across the continent.

    “People have no privacy. They are packed like sardines, shoulder-to-shoulder. Their things go missing and they are coughing and sneezing on each other,” Joyce Rankin, the clinical manager at Toronto homeless-serving organization Street Health, told Canadian outlet PressProgress of her city’s shelters in January 2019, a year before the coronavirus hit. “People get respiratory illnesses, tuberculosis, bed bugs and more. They are packed in and forced together and it is dehumanizing.”

    Even that was nothing new. As far back as the early 2000s, secretly filmed footage showing four people packed into space that the United Nations’ shelter standards for refugee camps would have allotted to a single person shocked Toronto city council into passing a regulation that shelters shouldn’t exceed 90 percent capacity. Its impact? A similar video was released last winter, and for the past several years, shelters have been consistently at or near 100 percent capacity, with the affordable housing crisis consistently outstripping new beds.

    Toronto’s gentrification, commodification of housing, facilitation of evictions—Ontario just pushed through a law to that effect, Bill 184, while tens of thousands are out of work due to the pandemic—and criminalization of the resulting public misery are echoed across the continent, as people are forced to live out their worst moments on the street or in unsanitary, often-dangerous shelter spaces.

     

    How COVID-19 Accelerated Criminalization

    With the advent of COVID-19 and policies of social isolation, North America’s homeless population is experiencing the criminalization of poverty in accelerated time. The many homeless people who ride New York’s subways at night are being pushed out, with the help of NYPD officers, to allow for nightly sanitizing of trains, despite hundreds of cases of COVID-19 in city shelters.

    A threatened eviction of homeless people in Philadelphia from the tunnels beneath the city’s Convention Center was sped up, even as alternatives on offer are far more dangerous than before. “The city decided to evict individuals who stay in one of the safest parts of the city,” said Philadelphia homelessness and drug user rights activist Sterling Johnson, “stating that they are helping.”

    They are not. That particular eviction took place on March 23—the day after the Centers for Disease Control released guidance advising that encampments should not be cleared unless housing is available, due to the risk of exacerbating the spread of COVID-19. “They do not have apartment units for them with private bathrooms and space to maintain a specific distance like has been asked of all of us,” confirmed Johnson.

    Not just housing, but adequate housing is a right that has been violated by almost all governments at all levels all along.

    The CDC is not the only body that has spoken out against dismantling of encampments. Overseas, well before COVID-19, UN Special Rapporteur Leilani Farha toured migrant camps, urban squats and Roma settlements across France and “called for an end to evictions that violated international law ensuring the right to adequate housing,” as Reuters reported. Not just housing, but adequate housing is a right that has been violated by almost all governments at all levels all along.

    The day I visited Sanctuary, as someone with a medical condition that placed me at high risk, I was already worried about the possibility of COVID-19. I was equally nervous about the possibility of offending one of the people I was going to interview by refusing to shake hands. I didn’t want them to think I thought they were diseased. That’s a common assumption, after all.

    In 2014, the city of Marseille, France, issued an ID card to the city’s homeless people, meant to be worn visibly. It was distinctly similar to Nazi-era badges, bearing a yellow triangles, ID information and a list of the bearer’s health issues. The scheme was abandoned after public outcry, but the impulse behind it survives worldwide.

    Stigma against unhoused people and community opposition to services for them overlap with stigma and fear around HV/AIDS and AIDS and tuberculosis, as well as racism, the stigmatization of drug use, and other prejudices. In Gallup, New Mexico, hard-hit by COVID-19, some homeless patients have been provided with certification cards attesting that they’ve been cleared for the disease, which are to be used to ensure access to shelter services.

    People who live on or near the streets or who are otherwise visibly poor have always been treated like infection risks by others. But given the risks of COVID infection in crowded settings, the frequency with which homeless people are moved around against their will, and their often at-risk health status to begin with, it is the precariously housed or unhoused—not the wealthier people whose fears manifest as stigma—who have most to fear from the virus.

    The coronavirus was brought to North America by people wealthy enough to travel, and took some time to reach the street-involved population. But like advocates for incarcerated people, unhoused people and their allies knew it would hit—and that when it did, it would hit hard. In early March, when there were still no confirmed cases in Toronto shelters, street nurse Cathy Crowe wrote that “Shelters are like a petri dish waiting for COVID-19 to arrive.”

    Within less than two months, there were 451 confirmed COVID infections in Toronto’s shelter system, and by June 14 several outbreaks in shelters brought the City of Toronto’s tally to 600 cases—an infection rate 35 per cent higher than the province’s overall rate, according to the Toronto Drop-in Network. With no universal testing of shelter residents, the actual rate is likely much higher.

    And so, in Toronto as elsewhere, people are rationally trying to escape the petri dish. Encampments and tent cities—and the criminalization with which society responds—are more in evidence than ever before.

     

    Stigma and Racism

    Historical forerunners of current events, those that should be studied so they are never repeated, feel instead like harbingers. Among the earliest inhabitants of Nazi concentration camps were members of a disparate group of people considered “asocial,” including sex workers, beggars and homeless people. Slightly later, they were joined by people with substance use disorders. The “clean-up” of city streets in advance of Berlin’s hosting of the Olympic Games in 1936 rounded up such people and took them away to the camps.

    Less murderous sweeps—ones that have nevertheless resulted in deaths due to increased misery, decreased services and overdose—have continued through the decades. Even if we limit our lens to the Olympics, we find clearances of visible homeless people preceding the games in Los Angeles (1984), Vancouver (2010) and Rio (2016).

    As the first part of this series examined, there are many reasons why people tip over from being precariously housed—living paycheck-to-paycheck, in bedsits, or too many people to a small apartment, or on a succession of friends’ couches—into the literal homelessness that gets you pushed from park bench to alley, sidewalk to street, until there is literally nowhere you are allowed to be. It’s a continuation of the process by which poor populations, mostly of color, are steadily pushed out of gentrifying neighborhoods and into food and transportation deserts in neighborhoods where law enforcement is at its harshest and services of all kinds are scarce.

    People who are homeless often move from being barely housed to on the streets and back again—everyone I spoke with for this series had done so. And unhoused people cluster in certain areas for reasons, including services, community, the sharing of vital information about things such as drug supplies, less heavy-handed local law enforcement or private security, and safety in numbers.

    But nothing brings out a particularly unpleasant sort of community spirit more than the visible presence of homeless people in an up-and-coming area—even if those targeted are doing things like enjoying a public park or using a public bathroom or hanging out on the sidewalk, activities that are legal for most people.

    Racialized poverty is a reality—just one that officials and wealthy white communities would rather not face.

    Business improvement associations and well-heeled residents may mix genuine fear with contempt: fear of break-ins and thefts, of their children encountering ugly scenes or aggression, of fights and open drug use, and people who act in unpredictable ways. They react by using their influence to mobilize law enforcement, in the form of surveillance, tickets, “moving people on,” petty arrests and brutality.

    One impact of this criminalization is to exacerbate structural racism. In Toronto, for example, a 2018 city survey of homeless residents found that more than half of respondents came to Canada as immigrants, refugee or asylum claimants, or temporary residents. Two-thirds of respondents identified as belonging to a demographic of color—which applies to just over half of Toronto’s general population, but 63 percent of its homeless population—with the largest share identifying as Black. Across Canada, Indigenous people are also highly over-represented among the homeless population, and Indigenous respondents in Toronto reported longer spells of homelessness.

    These findings in Toronto, one of the world’s most racially diverse cities, are typical. Cities like Los Angeles, New York City or, say, Dallas—really, most cities—reveal the same patterns of racialization in housing and in homeless populations. Pushing people out of encampments and into ever-less safe living situations in part reflects white fear of the large, visible tented populations of color that would result if municipalities were to provide necessary services and support rather than simply tearing down encampments and scattering the people who have taken refuge in them. Racialized poverty is a reality—just one that officials and wealthy white communities would rather not face.

     

    Inadequate COVID-9 Responses

    Municipalities belatedly began a shambling response to COVID-19, attempting to reduce numbers in over-full shelters, to take over hotels or other spaces to offer temporary and occasionally permanent housing spaces, or to authorize alternatives that were previously anathema. San Francisco, which has historically had an adversarial relationship to its abundant tent cities, made history with the decision to open the city’s first sanctioned tent city in a public park. Los Angeles County is scrambling to meet a goal of housing 25 per cent of its 60,000 homeless people (as of June 11, it’s just a quarter of the way there, with just over 3,700 housed—temporarily, in hotel rooms).

    But old habits of treating poor people as problems to be moved around by force die hard. Around encampments, even before they are forcibly cleared, policing is constant, said Zoe Dodd, a frontline harm reduction and support worker at Toronto’s South Riverdale Community Health Centre and a co-organizer of the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society. Even when residents are offered housing, they are often given as little as an hour to decide whether to be moved to another part of town, in conditions rarely explained to them, and to gather up their possessions.

    Dodd described constantly changing eviction and moving dates, people being given eviction notices even when they have agreed to leave and allowed three hours to remove their belongings. “They use these violent tools to coerce people to do these things,” she said. “But people actually wanted to go. They could just be kind about it.”

    Highly vulnerable people’s possessions are all too often scattered or trashed in these interactions. They are often denied any means to check if the new housing on offer is suitable for them in terms of accessibility, safety, harm reduction services, ability to bring pets, location or permanence. And the “offer” of housing is given in such a way that it’s more like “an offer they can’t refuse” than one that gives them any agency. People who have chosen to avoid unsafe and unacceptable indoor shelters are, if they’re “lucky,” being roughly ordered to move into unknown new accommodations that, for all they know, might be just as bad or worse.

    It is not poor people living in tents that poses an infection risk, but packing them into crowded shelters, dismantling encampments, or mishandling the delicate task of offering housing.

    As pointed out by physicians and public health researchers during protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police (and, in Canada, the still-under-investigation death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year old Black woman whose “wellness check” by police ended in her falling 24 stories from the balcony of her family’s apartment), the greatest public health risk from mass protests haven’t come from protesters, who have often, though not always, been masked and distanced. Rather, it’s from police who use tear gas to stimulate coughing and force removal of masks, from arrests and manhandling of protesters, and, most of all, from packing dozens of detainees into wagons and crowded cells.

    Likewise, it is not poor people living in tents that poses an infection risk, but packing them into crowded shelters, dismantling encampments, or mishandling the delicate task of offering housing, often temporary or unsuitable, to physically and emotionally vulnerable people.

    “Just taking people and putting them on a bus and taking them somewhere, it’s really traumatic,” said Dodd.

    Culturally sensitive COVID-19 testing of encampment sites in Toronto, offered by a coalition of health and social service organizations at Sanctuary and the Church of the Holy Trinity, found at total of just two positive cases (one staff member, one community member): a start at demonstrating in hard numbers that encampments work as an alternative to shelters for self-isolation to prevent transmission of COVID-19.

    “If people were stranded on an island the first thing they’d do would be to build shelter,” said Dodd. “That’s what they’re doing.”

    Both shelters and encampments are now part of a vital, de facto-permanent infrastructure that needs support.

    Toronto’s shelters, like those elsewhere, remain overcrowded and have just been forced to maintain the bare minimum of two meters between cots, mats or beds and stop packing people into bunk beds, following a lawsuit against the City of Toronto by a coalition of human rights and racial justice organizations.

    Like food banks and school lunch programs, intended as temporary solutions to societal failures, both shelters and encampments are now part of a vital, de facto-permanent infrastructure that needs support, not criminalization. As such, tent cities should be supported in practical ways—with proper sanitation, water, public health information, harm reduction supplies and opportunities for community development.

    And emergency housing alternatives—in Toronto and in other cities, from LA to NYC—should become permanent and should be offered, not ordered.

    Meanwhile, Zoe Dodd described people driving by the Toronto encampment at 4 am, waking residents with shouts of “Get a fucking job!”

     


     

    This article is the second of a three-part series of reports by Carlyn Zwarenstein about homelessness and its intersections with drug policy. The first part of the series was “The Mischaracterized Relationship Between Drug Use and Homelessness.”

    Photograph of an unhoused community in Oakland, California in 2019 by Neobatfreak via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0.

    • Carlyn Zwarenstein

      Carlyn is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. She writes about pain, struggle, injustice, drugs, exile, suffering—and how to make it better. Her work has appeared in publications including the Washington Post, the Guardian, the Globe and Mail and many others. Her memoir, Opium Eater: The New Confessions, was a Globe and Mail Best 100 book of 2016. An expanded version, incorporating journalism about substance use, pain, harm reduction and what people need to be well, will be published in 2021.

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