Claim: In 2020, Toronto Fire Services responded to 253 fires in encampments.

FACT: There were 132 encampment fires in 2020, almost half as many as the City claims, and the 132 figure includes fires where there was no property damage and there were no injuries.1 It is also likely that the 132 figure includes fire incidents that were unrelated to encampments, and is further inflated.2

The reason for this discrepancy in the number of encampment fires is that the City of Toronto has been calling “fire response events” not “fires.” Fire response events include all emergency responses to notifications of a suspected uncontrolled fire. Even if it turns out that a suspected uncontrolled fire in an encampment is simply a false alarm, a controlled campfire, BBQ smoke, steam from a pot on a cooking stove, or even someone setting off fireworks, these “fire response events” are counted as “fires” in the City’s accounting of encampment fires, significantly inflating the number of actual fires.3 If the City were to cite “fire incidents” instead, which are defined as emergency responses to notifications of a suspected uncontrolled fire that required fire suppression, the number of encampment fires would be significantly smaller.4 For 2020, citing the number of “fire response events” in encampments instead of “fire incidents” results an almost doubling of the number of encampment fires (253 instead of 132).

FACT: City of Toronto data about encampment fires do not take into account the significant increase in the number and size of encampments across the city since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, or the increase in park use overall.

Given that the number and size of encampments across the city has increased dramatically since the start of the pandemic,5 and that the level of recreational park use has increased dramatically as well,6 it only makes sense that the number of notifications of suspected uncontrolled fires would also increase. Not only are there more people living in encampments who engage in activities that can involve fire (cooking, Indigenous sacred fires), but there are more recreational park users in parks who engage in activities that can involve fire and to observe the activities of those living in encampments and to notify the fire department of suspected uncontrolled fires. This context is critical when looking at encampment fire data to assess the relative safety of encampments.

Notes:

City Claim: City of Toronto. (June 3, 2021). “City Manager’s report outlines City of Toronto’s ongoing efforts to protect people experiencing homelessness and ensure the safety of the City’s shelter system”; Toronto City Manager. (June 1, 2021). “COVID-19 Response Update: Protecting People Experiencing Homelessness and Ensuring the Safety of the Shelter System”; City of Toronto. (May 28, 2021). “City of Toronto continues to protect and assist people experiencing homelessness during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic”; City of Toronto. (May 20, 2021). “City of Toronto continues to support people experiencing homelessness through immunization, enhanced infection prevention, and safe inside space”; City of Toronto. (February 25, 2021). “Frequently Asked Questions – Wooden structures in encampments”; City of Toronto. (February 19, 2021). “City of Toronto serves notice on illegal structures in parks”; multiple claims to media.

  1. Source: Document obtained from the City of Toronto through MPPFOI Act request # 2021-00427. The document lists the number of “fire events” that the fire department responded to between January 2015 and February, 2021 which required fire suppression and which were classified as “fire,” “explosion” and “no loss outdoor fire” as per Ontario’s “Standard Incident Report Codes List.” A “no loss outdoor fire” is a fire that does not result in property damage or injury; no loss outdoor fires do not include “arson, vandalism, children playing, recycling or dump fires.” “No loss outdoor fires” and “fires” are not distinguished in the available data. Additional FOI requests are required to ascertain the actual number of out-of-control (outdoor) fires and explosions. Office of the Fire Marshall (2009). “Standard Incident Report Codes List.”
  2. While some “fire incidents” may be obviously “encampment fires” (such as when a tent or shelter is on fire) other “fire incidents” (such as a campfire) may simply be those that occur in parks that happen to have encampments in them. It is unclear how the distinction between a fire incident in a park and a fire incident in an encampment in a park is made. City staff have equated any activity that takes place in a park with activity that takes place in an encampment when these are not the same. See, for example, the testimony of Troy Ford, the City’s witness who spoke to fire safety, in which he interchanges parks with encampments, confuses the general area around encampments with encampments/encamped people, and blames encampment residents for events that occur in the park that there is no evidence an encampment resident was involved in. Ford, Troy. Affidavit in City of Toronto Motion Record, Black et al. v. City of Toronto, 2020 ONSC 6398. It seems likely then, that some fire incidents that occur in parks that are unrelated to encampments may be classified as “encampment fires” if there are encampments nearby.
  3. A freedom of information request made to the City of Toronto asked, “How many fires were there in homeless encampments, as expressed by month and year, between 2015 and the present date?” The City of Toronto responded to this request for information by providing the table, “Fire events that occurred in homeless encampment.” This table indicates that there were 253 “fire events” in homeless encampments in 2020. As the table lists the number of “fire events,” not actual fires, a follow-up was made to the City that reiterated that the request was for information about “fires” not “fire events.” This time, the City responded with a different table that listed only “fire incidents” from 2015-February, 2021. This table indicates that there were 132 “fire incidents” in homeless encampments in 2020. In an email accompanying the “fire incidents” table, the City clarified that the City understands “fire” to mean a “fire response event,” which it defines as “an emergency response to notification (alarm or call from the public) of a suspected uncontrolled fire. These events are recorded with the OFM codes associated with Fire, Pre-Fire Conditions, Controlled Burning or False Alarm.” The OFM code for “Pre-Fire Conditions” pertains to situations where no fire is present, such as an engine overheating, lightning, fireworks, a pot on a stove, and steam from cooking (see: Office of the Fire Marshall (2009). “Standard Incident Report Codes List”.) Documents obtained from the City of Toronto through MPPFOI Act request # 2021-00427, including email correspondence.
  4. FOI request # 2021-00427, including email correspondence.
  5. Toronto City Manager. (June 1, 2021). “COVID-19 Response Update: Protecting People Experiencing Homelessness and Ensuring the Safety of the Shelter System.”
  6. Lightle, M. (April 18, 2021) How Ontario’s parks became pandemic lifesavers. Toronto Observer.

Claim: Parks Ambassadors work to ensure the city’s parks are accessible, equitable and safe places for all.

FACT: Parks Ambassadors displace unhoused people, making parks inequitable and unsafe for some unhoused people.

Parks Ambassador training focuses primarily on managing homeless people.1 This training includes learning protocols for dismantling every encampment Ambassadors encounter (see images 1&2 below).2 In 2019, Parks Ambassadors dismantled at least 725 encampments (see image #3 below).3 The fact that homeless people in Toronto are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, people of colour, migrants, trans and disabled people4 has serious implications when it comes to ensuring both the equitable access to public space and the health and safety of people who are subject to multiple intersecting forms of marginalization and discrimination.

Images 1 & 2: Slides from Parks Ambassador Program training materials

Image #3: Slide from Parks Ambassador Program training materials

FACT: Parks Ambassadors facilitate the seizure, disposal5 and destruction6 of unhoused people’s property, which not only contravenes City policy,7 but endangers people’s health, safety, and their lives.

The City admits that multiple people have had all of their possessions destroyed after being told that they could keep their belongings in the park while they settle into a shelter-hotel.8 Unhoused people’s property includes survival supplies like tents, sleeping bags, clothing, safety equipment, food, and heat sources, which are necessary for the health and safety, and possibly even survival, of people living outside. City staff claim that current City policy is that they will store and catalogue people’s belongings so that they can be retrieved at a later date;9 but for those things that are not destroyed or disposed of, the “cataloging process” does not involve any indication of who owns the property and images of the “stored belongings” appear to be piles of property cleared from encampments that have been dumped in an outdoor City parking lot (see Image 4 below).10

Image 4: Encampment Resident Property “Storage”

FACT: Parks Ambassadors are parapolice who both criminalize and enforce the criminalization of unhoused people, which makes parks unsafe and less accessible for unhoused people, and therefore inequitable.

Parapolice are police-adjacent forces like by-law officers and security guards that are tasked with managing homeless people in parks and enforcing laws which criminalize the activities that are necessary for unhoused people’s basic survival.11 Parks Ambassadors often wear uniforms that closely resemble police uniforms and work closely with police officers;12 this can make their actual authority unclear to the public, including those they are policing.7 Parks Ambassadors’ training makes it evident that their jobs involve a disproportionate focus on policing the activities of homeless people (as compared with other park users), which makes parks less equitable. The enforcement of laws that criminalize activities that are necessary for unhoused people’s basic survival makes parks unsafe for unhoused people and less accessible to them. Unhoused people are disproportionately members of marginalized groups,8 which makes their criminalization by parks ambassadors especially inequitable.

Notes:

City source: City of Toronto. (n.d.) “Parks Ambassadors.”

  1. The contents listed in The Parks Ambassador Program “Executive Summary” are: Background; Expectations; Homelessness & People living in Poverty Policy; Response to Homelessness Decision Tree; Notice of Advice [encampment eviction notice]; Trespass to Property Act Letter- Suspension & Ban Policy; Park Safety Audits; Harm reduction and Open Needles in Parks; Homeless Trends. The majority of these items are directly or indirectly related to homelessness. Further, all of the training slides are bordered with photos, and on every page is at least one photo of an encampment. (This document was acquired through a freedom of information request asking for: “Any and all training manuals and/or communications regarding training for Park Ambassadors in the correspondence” of Troy Ford, the head Parks Ambassador.) Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation. (2019). The Parks Ambassador Program. Obtained through MFOIPPA request #2020-01772, p. 1.
  2. When Parks Ambassadors encounter an encampment, they coordinate with Streets to Homes to “resolve the situation.” If an encampment resident accepts an indoor placement offered by Streets to Homes, they are deemed compliant and Parks Ambassadors “coordinate encampment clearing, in a timely fashion.” If that person does not accept the offer, they are deemed not compliant and Parks Ambassadors are to organize the dismantling of the encampment, which can include giving written notice and requesting the assistance of the police. (See images #1 & #2 above.) Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation. (2019). “The Parks Ambassador Program.” Obtained through MFOIPPA request #2020-01772, p. 12. The information on these images can also be found in the Parks and Recreation Division Homelessness and People Living in Poverty Policy. People staying in encampments are supposed to be given 72 hours notice under the law before an eviction, except under very limited circumstances. Both Troy Ford and Scott McKean, who are City of Toronto staff, testified that there are multiple instances that this has not occurred, including, according to McKean, “where the City is moving to clear the park after significant outreach” (p. 42). Cross-examination of Scott McKean. Black et al. v. City of Toronto, 2020 ONSC 6398. Court file CV-20-644217.
  3. The training slides are dated 2019. It is possible the data for 2019 encampments is incomplete. This graph, taken from the training slides, does not specifically say this is the number of encampments dismantled. However it is evident from the protocols illustrated in Image #1 & #2 that all Parks Ambassadors’ encounters with encampments result in their destruction. Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation. (2019). “The Parks Ambassador Program.” Obtained through MFOIPPA request #2020-01772, p. 12
  4. City of Toronto. (2018). Street needs assessment – 2018.
  5. People have been told by Parks Ambassadors that they can keep some things in the park for a period of time because shelter-hotels only allow people to bring 2 bags into the shelter-hotel with them, only to find out later that their belongings were disposed of. Encampment Support Network (March 19, 2021). Two bag limit – people’s worldly goods. Further, Parks Ambassadors have disposed of “bedding material to discourage overnight sleepers”  MFOIPPA Request to City of Toronto 2019-00013, p. 36. 
  6. Parks Ambassador Troy Ford gave sworn testimony that he has cut open people’s tents in Cross-examination of Troy Ford. Black et al. v. City of Toronto, 2020 ONSC 6398. Court file CV-20-644217. See a Twitter thread by outreach worker Lorraine Lam in which she recounts the experiences of Jesse Iker, now diseased, who reported that Ford slashed his tent open while he was in it. Lam, Lorraine (@lorrainelamchop). (November 21, 2020). Twitter thread. 10:25 am; also see Lavoie, J. (2020, December 8). Ten more lives lost remembered at monthly Toronto Homeless Memorial. Toronto.com. Troy Ford denied he did this in the same cross-examination.
  7. The City’s “new practice” is to allow people to keep their property in parks. This is explained by Dan Breault, a Program Manager with the City, in Encampment Support Network (March 19, 2021). Two bag limit – people’s worldly goods. Prior to this, according to Breault, “just everything was absolutely discarded.” Prior to this policy being implemented, it was City policy to give unhoused people advance notice before disposing of their property. Parks and Recreation Division. (2002). Homelessness and People Living in Poverty Policy.
  8. Dan Breault, City Program Manager, said that, given this is a “new practice… there will be mistakes and room for refinement and we’re continuing to try to make those refinements as we go. Understanding that… in this particular case and in other cases… somebody is suffering and… for that… we’re sorry” in Encampment Support Network (March 19, 2021). Two bag limit – people’s worldly goods.
  9. As quoted in Encampment Solidarity Network (@ESN_TO). (March 2, 2021). Twitter post .
  10. Encampment Solidarity Network (@ESN_TO). (March 2, 2021). Twitter post .
  11. The “criminalization of homelessness” involves the creation and enforcement (by police and parapolice) of rules that specifically regulate homeless people in public spaces. The effect of criminalization of homelessness is that “people who occupy public spaces (because they lack private ones), and whose poverty is highly visible, are subject to extra attention by the criminal justice system not so much for what they do, but for who they are and where they are.” O’Grady, Bill, Stephen Gaetz, and Kristy Buccieri. Can I see your ID? The policing of youth homelessness in Toronto. Toronto: Justice for Children and Youth & Homeless Hub, 2011, p. 7. Laws which criminalize homelessness include those which make activities that are necessary for unhoused people’s basic survival illegal. These laws include prohibitions on sheltering oneself, lying down in public places, and sleeping in parks. The enforcement of such laws causes both physical and psychological harm and has been found to violate the right to life, liberty and security of the person enshrined in section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Pivot Legal Society. (2016). Homeless Rights in Canada. Submission of the Pivot Legal Society to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights for the Sixth Periodic Report of Canada for the CESCR’s 57th Session; also see Withers, A. J. (2020). Mapping ruling relations through homelessness organizing. York University.
  12. Cross examination of Troy Ford. Black et al. v. City of Toronto, 2020 ONSC 6398. Court file CV-20-644217; Parks Forestry and Recreation. “Parks Ambassador Service Level.” Toronto, 2017; Parks and Environment Committee. “Parks Ambassador Program.” Toronto, 2017; Withers, A. J. (2020). Mapping ruling relations through homelessness organizing. York University.
  13. Kammersgaard, Tobias. “Private Security Guards Policing Public Space: Using Soft Power in Place of Legal Authority.” Policing and Society 31, no. 2 (February 7, 2021): 117–30; Withers, A. J. (2020). Mapping ruling relations through homelessness organizing. York University.
  14. City of Toronto. (2018). Street needs assessment – 2018.

Image 4 Credit: Screen capture from video, photographer unknown.