TORONTO — Advocates who work with Toronto's homeless community say they've observed an alarming uptick in violence against those who are unhoused – a situation they say has come under the spotlight after recent assaults and the stabbing death of a homeless man in the city.
Toronto police and the city say they don't collect specific data on attacks against homeless individuals, but street pastor Doug Johnson Hatlem and Diana Chan McNally, a harm reduction case manager, say they've noticed an escalation in physical and verbal assaults in recent months based on interactions with those they work with.
"This isn't brand new, but certainly, the severity of attacks and the frequency of severe attacks is at a level that I haven't seen before," said Hatlem, who is also a spokesperson for the charity Sanctuary Toronto and has worked with vulnerable populations for more than a decade.
"Some of them are reported to police and some of them aren't reporting."
Hatlem said those he works with have told him of threats of violence from strangers if homeless people "don't move along" on sidewalks. Some have said they've had water bottles thrown at them and several have reported assaults, he said.
"Smaller incidents (are) of people spitting (on) or chasing homeless people," he said. "We hear more discriminatory things be said to individuals on the streets."
McNally, a harm reduction case manager with All Saints Church, said she's seeing more homeless people with bruises, cuts and various other injuries after being assaulted by strangers.
"There is such an increase of violence against people who are actively on the streets," said McNally. "It's ongoing, but I see it more and more. There's just so much hatred and dehumanization of people who are unhoused."
McNally highlighted violence against homeless individuals while at a memorial earlier this month for Ken Lee, who died after allegedly being swarmed and stabbed by eight teen girls in mid-December. The teens have been charged with second-degree murder.
Other recent incidents include the slashing of two homeless people last month. A 21-year-old Toronto man has been arrested in that case.
McNally said vulnerable community members regularly tell her "members of the public hate them and don't want them to be there."
"They are human beings. They deserve to live in the city like everyone else," she said.
Social and economic distress has seen the homeless population in Toronto rise in recent years, and the city's efforts to clear certain homeless encampments from parks has fuelled hostility towards those who are unhoused, said Hatlem, the street pastor. A city bylaw prevents camping in parks.
The bylaw and the city's enforcement of it when it comes to clearing homeless encampments, "sets a strong tone that unhoused people are trash," Hatlem said.
In an interim report released last year, the city's ombudsman said the municipality must treat people living in homeless encampments with dignity and respect as it continues to remove those living at local parks.
The city said it was aware of several reported attacks against homeless individuals and noted that one of its top priorities is providing support to its most vulnerable residents.
"There is no place in our City for those that would commit acts of violence against people experiencing homelessness," Anthony Toderian, a spokesperson for the City of Toronto, wrote in a statement.
"We appreciate the anxiety these acts may have caused for others living outside who have already experienced so much trauma."
Toderian further said that an "accusation of a City narrative against people experiencing homelessness and their belongings is not only wildly untrue but extremely harmful to outreach efforts."
The city said it had numerous resources dedicated to help homeless individuals find "safe inside space" while working to find permanent supportive housing. The City of Toronto's website says its shelter system accommodates approximately 8,900 people every night.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 23, 2023.
Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version carried an outdated figure for the number of people accommodated by the City of Toronto's shelter system each night and incorrectly referred to Anthony Toderian as a spokesperson for Toronto Mayor John Tory.