Federal housing advocate Marie-Josée Houle has called the spread of homeless encampments in cities across Canada a human rights crisis.
“People living in encampments face some of the most vulnerable circumstances of any member of Canadian society … they have experienced a history of human rights violations and are at heightened risk of further violations,” her office wrote in an interim report on encampments published this month.
Alexandra Flynn, an associate law professor at the University of British Columbia who researches housing issues, says it’s difficult to pin down how many people have no place to live across Canada and how many of those are left sheltering in tents or sleeping outdoors.
But going by reports from those working on the front lines, homelessness is increasing across the country, she said in a recent interview, and so is the number of encampments.
“It’s a huge deal,” Flynn said. “What’s also new is the degree to which smaller municipalities and mid-sized municipalities are experiencing pretty dramatic increases in homeless populations. And many of them are not resourced to address the issue — they haven’t been in a situation where they’ve had to.”
The Canadian Press sent reporters to encampments across the country to find out who is living there and why. Here’s what they found:
‘Suffering brings us here’: Inescapable personal hurt on streets of British Columbia’s capital
Rose Dove takes all her possessions with her wherever she goes. Her belongings, clothes, sleeping bag, tent and the piece of wood she uses for protection are strapped to a large skateboard she pulls behind her like a rickety travel trailer.
Dove said recently she had been sleeping outside for three weeks, pitching her tent at night in parks where she feels safest, moving on in the morning.
“I have no fixed address,” says Dove, 37, who has moved from coast to coast over the past five years before returning to Victoria from Quebec last month.
“I’m B.C. in my heart,” she says.
Dove looks down Pandora Avenue, a major artery that leads to downtown Victoria, and expresses sadness for the people who have pitched tents along the grassy median known as Harris Green.
The Our Place Society shelter, which provides meals, programs and some housing services, stands on one side of Pandora and an overdose prevention site is located on the other.
“It’s the suffering that brings us here,” Dove says. “That’s why you end up in a tent.”
She says she has a drug addiction, a mental illness and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She has two children but no longer has custody of them.
“I’m addicted to crack cocaine,” Dove says. “I’m not going to talk about my children.”
She says the people she meets at Harris Green who are homeless and sleeping in tents suffer from deep personal wounds they are trying to forget but can’t escape.
A Victoria bylaw permits temporary sheltering in nine designated city parks from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. for people who are homeless. The city has been in several legal battles launched by homeless advocates who say Victoria doesn’t provide enough shelter spaces.
— By Dirk Meissner in Victoria, B.C.
‘It’s a crisis’: Bringing homelessness to Newfoundland politicians’ doorstep
Robert Osmond was among the first people to pitch a tent this month in a wide, rolling field directly across from the Newfoundland and Labrador legislature building.
The 41-year-old is homeless for the first time in his life after his landlord evicted him and his roommate nearly six months ago. Osmond says the landlord told them the house needed renovations and then put the property back on the market — without making any changes and at twice the previous rent.
Since then, Osmond — who is out of work — has slept wherever he could — on couches, in cars and finally, in his tent alongside a busy four-lane road across from the provincial government building. Ten days after he first set up camp, his tent was surrounded by more than two dozen others.
The encampment has become the hub for a growing protest against housing conditions in the province, with occupants demanding safe, stable housing rather than a bed in a shelter.
Newfoundland and Labrador spent more than $5 million in the last fiscal year housing people in shelters run by private landlords. People at the encampment say the shelters are unsafe, unhealthy and unfit and believe they’re better off living in a tent, even if it means weathering the city’s notorious winds and fall rains.
Osmond says he is glad so many people had found a safe place to stay at the encampment. But he was dismayed to see how many others like him are without housing.
“It sucks,” he says. “But it does show what the homeless situation here is. It’s a crisis.”
— By Sarah Smellie in St. John’s, N.L.
‘We’re stuck’: Quebec housing shortage pushes encampments to suburbs
Tents have become a common sight on Bourassa Street in the Montreal suburb of Longueuil, as the shelter in a former church on the corner regularly attracts more people than it can lodge.
Nestled between tennis courts, a library and rows of mostly single-family homes, La Halte du Coin was established as an emergency resource at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The provisional facility has no showers and just one toilet. “There are issues of dignity,” shelter director Pierre Rousseau says. “In emergency mode … that used to be acceptable. Now it’s much less so.”
Still, demand has only increased in recent months, he says, as a local housing crisis has intensified and unhoused people from other cities — including Montreal across the St. Lawrence River — have turned to the suburban shelter.
La Halte du Coin accepts 20 people per night to sleep on cots in the church nave. Lately, it’s been turning away between 10 and 12 people every day. Rousseau says the shelter plans to increase its capacity to 35, but ultimately only a move to a new building will improve the situation.
Dani Pap, who has been living in Longueuil for five years, is among those who have begun pitching tents outside the church.
Left homeless by what he calls a string of bad luck with landlords, Pap says he is trapped in a vicious cycle and unable to find long-term housing.
“We’re stuck,” Pap says, imploring governments to “move fast because more and more people are coming” to the encampment.
He describes a nightly scramble outside La Halte du Coin, with some people sleeping under picnic tables and others nestling against tents to benefit from the body heat of strangers.
Not all the new arrivals are welcome.
“They make noise. There are vandals. They steal,” Pap says. “There are many things that happen that are unpleasant and block us from moving forward.”
He hopes to eventually see more funding for supportive housing, but in the meantime suggests the Canadian Army could help unhoused people by providing tents, mattresses and other supplies.
— By Thomas MacDonald in Montreal
‘The biggest need right now is just heat’: Historic Halifax square fills with tents
At downtown Halifax’s Grand Parade, the city square that faces city hall and houses a cenotaph is filled with tents.
Ric Young has been staying in the makeshift encampment for nearly three months and says most of the roughly 20 people living there are, like him, newly homeless.
“When the public says they hate seeing the park like this, I just want to say, trust me, we hate being in this park,” Young says. “Most of the people in this park are just people that can’t find a place.”
It is one of more than 30 homeless encampments spread out across the Halifax Regional Municipality, where according to the latest city records, 1,014 people are homeless and looking for stable housing.
Young says he has seen as many as 30 tents crammed into the limited green space within the square, and he keeps an extra tent at the ready for people who show up with nowhere to sleep.
“You don’t realize how many people are just one step away from being homeless,” he said. “People living in their cars, doing couch-surfing, and they’re not counted in any statistics,” he says.
The 47-year-old who’s originally from Newfoundland was working in a restaurant kitchen and living in an apartment in central Halifax until June when he says his landlord ended the lease in order to renovate. With rents high and vacancies scarce, he struggled to find another apartment and eventually ended up staying in a tent. He says he had to give up his job.
“I couldn’t do it anymore. It’s become impossible,” he says of working a restaurant job while sleeping rough.
Young, who was apologetic about some litter strewn around the site, says staying in a tent is getting harder as the temperature drops. The only way to get any rest is by falling asleep early before it gets too cold, but that isn’t always easy with Halifax’s noisy bar scene.
He is focused on looking for a place to stay and doing what he can to keep warm.
“The biggest need right now is just heat, just warmth. That’s one of the necessities of life that every human being deserves …. I don’t think we’re asking for too much.”
— By Lyndsay Armstrong in Halifax
‘It can happen to you’: In Edmonton, a plea for tolerance of encampments
Joshua Bell had a home, a family, and two dogs in Waterloo, Ont. After landing in Edmonton two years ago, he was homeless.
He had been staying with a cousin, who kicked him out after a spat over a can of ravioli.
“It can happen to you,” he says. “At the flip of a switch, you could be left with nothing.”
Bell, 41, lives in an encampment of four tents behind a homeless outreach centre in downtown Edmonton near police headquarters. He shares his tent with his new dog.
He has stayed in about eight other camps in the city. He says he wants to have a home again and become a podcaster to share his thoughts on homelessness and other things.
Bell says he doesn’t drink or do drugs and tries not to associate with people who do. To get food or something warm to wear for the winter, he goes to outreach centres and food kitchens.
Bell says he doesn’t panhandle. The first winter he spent in Edmonton, he went to a mall food court and some older women gave him $10.
“As soon as I turned my back, I started bawling,” he says. “I felt pathetic, I felt like I was less than a human.”
Bell says it’s hard to get on your feet, and living on the street is often dangerous. His wallet and bag were recently stolen.
He identifies three levels to homelessness: “There’s people who want to get out of here. There’s people who don’t want to get out of here. And there’s people who can’t get out of here.”
He says it would be best if officials stopped trying to displace people who can’t or don’t want to leave the streets and focused on helping those who want to leave. “Get us a spot in the city where we are allowed to be there, where we don’t feel like we’re breaking the law just because we have to set up camp.”
— By Jamin Mike in Edmonton
‘It’s never too late’: Thunder Bay man hopes to break cycle of jail and addiction
Oskar Balaban set up a tent one July day in one of two main encampments in Thunder Bay, Ont.
The 34-year-old came to Ontario with his family from Poland when he was three years old.
After a quiet upbringing in the Toronto-area cities of Mississauga and Burlington, he began having trouble with alcohol and the law in his teens. He has bounced around Canada since leaving home and has been in and out of jail ever since.
He moved out west about a decade ago to try to be with his two sons from two previous relationships, but those efforts failed.
Over the years, his addictions morphed from alcohol to cocaine, then crack cocaine, and now crystal meth. He lived for a year in a shelter in Winnipeg until March.
“It was a year of trying to better myself, to be in my son’s life and take him back into my care, but that didn’t happen at all, so I came out here,” Balaban says, his voice trailing off.
On his first night in Thunder Bay, he slept in a hospital emergency room. The hospital then arranged for a bed at the local Salvation Army. Balaban says he got into a treatment program there and was free of drugs for a few months.
But after a relapse, they kicked him out of the program and, eventually, the shelter. He then spent a month in jail for possession of a stolen car. When he got out, he had nowhere to go, so he decided to set up a tent with his new girlfriend next to the Kaministiquia River.
“It’s a nice little community we got here, but you really have to look out for yourself,” he said in August.
He was on a wait-list for social housing, but, like in the rest of Canada, that wait could be months or years. He hopes having a home will help him better handle his addictions.
“I want to be in my sons’ lives,” he says. “My dream is to move out west and be with my boys. It’s never too late, right?”
— By Liam Casey in Thunder Bay, Ont.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 23, 2023.
The Canadian Press