Breakup of Toronto homeless encampment has national implications

Allowing homeless people to live in city parks is unsafe, unwise and unnecessary

Michael TaubeFor the second time in slightly more than a year, Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park is in the news.

Roughly 10,000 people rushed into the park in May 2020 to enjoy a few hours of sunshine and socialization. Most of them were in their 20s and 30s and had expressed frustration at having been cooped up for two months due to COVID-19.

This act of civil disobedience was criticized by Toronto Mayor John Tory and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, with the latter calling the park dwellers’ behaviour “reckless.” It led to a short-lived spike in active COVID-19 cases in the city. No arrests were made, but many law-abiding citizens in Toronto were rather furious for a spell.

What happened 13 months later was much worse and has national implications.

Temporary encampments have been built in Trinity Bellwoods during the pandemic. This enabled some homeless people to live illegally in a park on public land. Many of them put up tents, although some wooden structures were constructed.

Trespass notices were circulated by city officials urging people to leave the park on their own. A plan in April to evacuate Trinity Bellwoods and move the encampment into a shelter hotel was unfortunately halted after a COVID-19 outbreak occurred.

Reports indicate that between 20 and 25 people have been evicted in the last year.

City administration finally had its fill this month. After trespass notices were posted on June 12 to little avail, a group of police, private security and shelter administration staff went in and broke up the encampment once and for all.

Twenty-five people were evicted and referred to shelters or hotel rooms paid for by the city. A large blue metal fence was constructed around the perimeter to ensure the encampment wouldn’t be rebuilt.

The evacuation was “mostly peaceful,” according to Tory. There were reportedly clashes between police and protesters who had come out to support the encampment, and a few arrests were made.

Left-leaning supporters are predictably trying to turn this into a discussion of poverty and police brutality. These two intangibles have nothing to do with last week’s evacuation, however.

People from all walks of life aren’t allowed to set up camps and live on public land as they see fit. Ontario’s Trespass to Property Act clearly prohibits the construction of tents and other structures in city parks. Camping, lighting fires and gathering overnight aren’t permitted, either.

Every Canadian province and territory has similar legislation to protect its parks and public lands.

The Trinity Bellwoods encampment was an issue of loitering. Toronto police and private security guards had every legal right to go in – and should have gone in much earlier.

Scenarios like the one at Trinity Bellwoods also fall under the broken windows theory of civil disorder and anti-social behaviour.

Broken windows is a criminology theory first introduced by two prominent social scientists, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. They wrote in the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, “Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighbourhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.”

Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and police commissioner William Bratton both used the broken windows theory in the 1990s to help clean up their tattered city. It worked.

Trinity Bellwoods was slipping into the belly of the beast of the broken windows theory at a rapid speed. It would have continued to escalate and the situation could have worsened until the city finally brought it to an end.

Now that it’s over, the park’s broken window can be permanently fixed.

Poverty is an issue that no level of government can readily ignore. It has to be properly dealt with. The compassionate conservative model of using the public sector, private sector and places of worship to help people get back on their feet once more could be beneficial in the long run.

At the same time, allowing homeless people to live in city parks, Toronto or otherwise, is unsafe, unwise and unnecessary. It certainly doesn’t help tackle poverty in Canada in any way, shape or form.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics. For interview requests, click here.


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