Homelessness is on the rise and has become more visible in our communities. The visibility of unsheltered homelessness, such as tent cities, has introduced challenges for municipal governments, as they struggle with encampment regulation. Safety, health, and trash pick-up are among the concerns of communities and encampment residents.
I worked as part of a research team of Master of Applied Politics students, Alison Brown, Sarah Gillies, and Victoria Marshall, to examine how municipalities respond to encampments. We were supervised by Dr. Laura Pin, Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department (Faculty of Arts), and worked closely with the Region of Waterloo, which is actively looking for ways to reform bylaws and policies to effectively respond to homeless encampments.
Municipalities across Canada have responded to encampments in their communities in different ways through the development of protocols to be followed by municipal staff and bylaw enforcement officers. For many municipalities, encampment response is an area of policy that is quite new as we continue to see the rise in the Canadian Housing Market in recent years. In fact, the nuanced nature of encampment regulation was one of the motivations for this research.
The message we want to convey to municipalities who are trying to figure out how to respond to encampments in their own communities is that housing is first and foremost a human right. Bylaws should align with that consideration to engage basic human rights principles when responding to encampments. Our research was an opportunity to provide recommendations municipalities could use to develop, or perhaps update, their existing protocols to ensure new protocols respected the human rights of encampment residents, as well as respond to the concerns of the public.
Although our research was focused on this small yet visible part of the issue of homelessness in Ontario communities, we wanted to frame our research as only part of the issue of homelessness. Through our research, we sought to provide context for municipal governments to better understand why individuals might choose to live in an encampment as opposed to turning to the shelter system.
We wanted to highlight factors drawing individuals to encampments over shelters to ensure officials were aware of the human needs and rights of freedom, safety, and belonging that draws encampment residents. These factors include:
Our research also provided education about societal misconceptions regarding encampments. For example, it is not uncommon for people to use criminalizing language (e.g., violators of the law) when referring to individuals experiencing homelessness. Existing provincial regulations, such as the Ontario Safe Streets Act (1999), criminalizes homelessness and reinforces this stereotype. This Act clearly targets homeless individuals creating increased tension with law enforcement. These criminalizing attitudes fail to account for the structural factors in society contributing to and denying residents the human right to access adequate food, housing, and sanitation.
In addition, those experiencing homelessness who might also suffer from a mental illness or addiction, are further stigmatized as people who bear the personal responsibility for these issues, rather than on the systemic factors that have marginalized people into a homeless situation. These regulations and policies further marginalize those experiencing homelessness.
To provide municipalities with advanced, practical recommendations they could implement, we consulted Farha and Schwan’s National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada which was produced by a former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing. This research advocates for responses to encampments that are based on human rights principles. For example, ensuring meaningful engagement and the participation of encampment residents, ensuring that relocation is human rights compliant, and viewing eviction as a last resort.
When we discuss housing and the right to land, it’s important to recognize the forced displacement of indigenous peoples from said lands. In reference to the Region of Waterloo specifically, this includes the failure to honour the Haldimand Treaty of 1784 and the displacement of Six Nations of the Grand River from treaty territory. In recognition of this, Farah and Schwan advocate for encampment responses that consider the distinct rights of potential indigenous residents who tend to be overrepresented in communities of unsheltered populations.
To ensure we provided recommendations helpful to each municipality’s unique situation and therefore unique responses to encampments, we chose to describe the responses of cities classified into one of the four types of community responses to encampments, as defined by researchers:
On January 27th, this research was proven to be of extreme relevance in housing policy as the Ontario Superior Court of Justice denied the Region of Waterloo’s application to clear the Victoria Street Encampment in Downtown Kitchener. While this decision concerns Encampment Management in the Region of Waterloo specifically, the courts have established a precedent for municipalities in response to encampments in their own communities.
Specifically, the Region of Waterloo put forth an application to have the tents and living spaces removed from public property as they believe residents are in violation of existing by-laws regarding public conduct on regionally owned property. Ultimately, the courts found that removing residents from the Victoria Street Encampment would violate their right to life, liberty, and security of the person protected by s.7 of the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. Enforcing an eviction of encampment residents would violate their rights because of the lack of alternative shelter space in the Region of Waterloo that meets the needs of current encampment residents. In other words, through this decision, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice establishes Encampment Management as a human rights issue.
While providing municipalities with this information, we did not want policymakers to forget encampments are but one symptom of the problem of unsheltered homelessness. The creation of more permanent, affordable, and supportive housing is needed as a foundation for human-rights-based housing strategies.
This research report was a first step to help municipalities – such as the Region of Waterloo, Halton Region, and other Regions, to respond to homeless encampments in ways that support the Human Rights of encampment dwellers.
Hannah McGurk (pronouns she/her), is a recent graduate of the Master of Applied Politics program at Wilfrid Laurier University. During her graduate degree, Hannah specialized in Canadian Housing Policy and co-authored an article on the regulation of unsheltered homelessness in Canada. Hannah’s research has been sought after by the Region of Waterloo, and other non-profit organizations such as the Canadian Observatory for Homelessness, the Right to National Housing Network, and Peterborough Drug Strategy. Hannah is actively sharing her research findings and recommendations with community members and policymakers. Hannah shared her research as part of the Laurier - Milton Public Library lecture series on January 11, 2023.
Hannah previously received her undergraduate degree from Wilfrid Laurier University and her research interests include housing and public policy.