Cities need to stop trying to police their way out of homelessness: Expert

By Casey Taylor

Rethinking the way in which cities respond to homeless encampments.

One expert said the ways municipal governments tend to respond to encampments are often ineffective and punitive, though the Region of Waterloo may now be on the right track.

Penny Gurstein is a professor emeritus and director of the Housing Research Collaborative at the University of British Columbia. She said cities need to stop trying to police their way out of homelessness.

“You cannot dismantle an encampment until there's actually some place, a home, where somebody can go to,” Gurstein told the Mike Farwell Show on CityNews 570. “That just doesn't make sense.”

She said choosing to live in an encampment isn't typically someone's first choice, in fact, it's quite often all that's left.

“They have very little options and when the city does something like try to dismantle them without providing any options, I mean, we're left with the problem again — they just move on,” Gurstein said.

On top of being forced to move with nowhere to go, Gurstein said the act of sending police and by-law officers in to clear people out also tends to mean more criminalization and trauma.

“They can be ticketed for sleeping rough, for panhandling, for all sorts of things which then further inhibits their ability to access safe, secure, and affordable housing,” Gurstein said. “There's [also] a lot of trauma and given that probably a lot of [people experiencing homelessness] have gone through trauma all their life, it just re-traumatizes them.”

Gurstein went on to suggest sanctioned encampments like what is currently in the works in Waterloo Region could prove beneficial. She also said, however, this should not change the fact encampments, sanctioned or not, can prove unsafe and may also offer little opportunity for moving beyond homelessness.

“I really do think the ultimate solution is providing housing,” she said. “If we can do that and if we could provide the supports that would let people move on in their lives, I think we could be reducing homelessness significantly.”

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