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ROAD HOME: We need to find a path forward on encampments

Until there are better options for housing, we need to work with encampments to keep them safe and supported, says Blue Door CEO in this month's column

While you may not have noticed in the past, over the last few years, it has been hard to miss. 

Tents, tarps and structures. Set up across the region, these small communities – “encampments” - provide shelter for very vulnerable residents.

Over the course of the pandemic, encampments grew in size and locations across the GTA. Often, homelessness is thought of as a downtown or big city issue, and during the pandemic, we saw encampments in plain sight, along University Avenue, and under the Gardiner Expressway. 

While homelessness in York Region is not as visual, it does exist, with York Region’s 2021 Point in Time Report counting 321 people experiencing homelessness.

And, unfortunately, experts agree that the number has grown. 

Likewise, encampments are in existence and growing across York Region, many hidden in the vast forested areas.

If you’ve seen an encampment, you might have wondered why anyone might choose to live there. Often, it’s not a choice. 

When emergency housing options (shelters) are full, individuals might have to travel outside of the region for shelter, leaving their network and community behind, and often facing the barrier of limited transportation options. For some, they might not feel safe in the housing options available to them and may have had a negative experience visiting one before.

Many people who experience homelessness suffer from trauma, and if the right housing option is not found, it can be triggering for them. For others, the rules or guidelines set out by housing providers might be too rigid or limiting for their needs. 

Most of us yearn for a sense of community, and for many, encampments offer just that.

Communities across Canada have approached encampments in different ways. Some have worked with individuals living in encampments for weeks ahead of a deadline, providing them with outreach and housing services before resorting to enforcement. Other communities, like Kitchener and Waterloo, have leaned into encampments, creating communities like A Better Tent City, where water, washroom, showers and cooking facilities are brought in. 

While it is important to note that all encampments are not alike, the same can be said for solutions. 

Advocates have pushed back on the enforcement route, noting it is an infringement on human rights, and that the options being offered are just too limited to meet the needs of people living in encampments, and that the hundreds of thousands of dollars used on enforcement could be better spent on better housing options and services.

A recent ruling in Waterloo by the Ontario Superior Court is a game changer. 

It struck down Waterloo’s encampment bylaw, finding that people experiencing homeless had a Charter right to shelter themselves given that adequate housing alternatives were not available.

This ruling is forcing communities across Canada to reexamine their approach to encampments and perhaps look at making them safer by bringing in food, water, and other supplies, as well as housing workers and others who can put together individual plans for people to access safe and affordable housing. 

The bottom line is this: encampments are not an answer to our affordable housing crisis. 

Everyone deserves a safe and affordable place to call home. It’s their human right.

When municipalities look to clear out encampments, some believe it’s because they think they deserve much better and that many encampments simply are not safe.

However, right now there is a lack of affordable housing options for people experiencing homelessness, not enough resources being put into wraparound supports, and a lack of housing in general.

Until these resources are developed and widely available and accessible, we need to work with encampments to keep them safe and supported in the best way possible, so that both the people living in them and the community that surrounds them are taken care of. 

We need to push our government to step up to provide greater income support, and a variety of affordable and accessible housing options so that every Canadian has a safe place to call home.

For communities looking for resources to support, I encourage them to reach out to Leilani Farha, global director of The Shift, who has worked with many community leaders to develop a human rights approach to encampments( or go to OrgCode’s website (, to download their free book on ending homelessness encampments in Canada.

Let’s work harder to have housing for all, and until we do, let’s work harder to be more human in our approach to those who do not.

Road Home is a regular monthly NewmarketToday column by Michael Braithwaite, CEO of Blue Door, York Region’s largest emergency housing provider, and a renowned leader and expert in the housing and homelessness sector. He is the host of the housing and homelessness podcast On The Way Home, board chair of the youth homelessness-focused organization A Way Home Canada, and a tireless advocate for people experiencing homelessness.