The Trouble with Displacement
Bench with centre bars to prevent lying down. Credit: Cara Chellew

When cities were surveyed in early 2020, unsheltered homelessness in parks was the most cited social challenge. Yet, few cities responded to our prompt to highlight inclusive work they do to address this.

This tells us that the use of parks as places of shelter is an area we were collectively struggling with even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic—and understandably so. We know that this is an extremely complex challenge, rooted in issues well beyond the realm of parks, and now further deepened by COVID-19.

With homelessness predicted to rise due to recent job losses, it is a critical time for cities and park professionals to ensure they have clear, well-informed approaches that are compatible with the current realities of unsheltered homelessness in Canadian cities.

Our conversations with experts, which took place prior to the pandemic but have become only more relevant since, invite reflection about how we might approach this issue from a new place.

Rocks in unused space to discourage camping. Credit: Cara Chellew
Rocks in unused space to discourage camping. Credit: Cara Chellew
Understanding the realities

Homelessness, by definition, involves a lack of access to private spaces.

This places people experiencing homelessness “necessarily” in the public realm, explained Dr. Jeff Rose, a professor at the University of Utah whose research explores homelessness and parks. “And then if you're in the public realm—where do you be? Where do you exist?”

The best option, for many, is a park.

This has become even more apparent as COVID-19 has placed added pressures on the shelter system. But even prior, many shelters were not accessible to all, due to factors such as restrictions on pets, partners, and/or substance use, a lack of adequate storage for belongings, and/or inadequate supports for trans communities and people with disabilities.

Anna Cooper, a lawyer and homeless rights advocate at Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver, noted that, in this context, parks can be places of relative safety.

Being surrounded by community lends a sense of security, and can play a life-saving role amidst a national overdose crisis where encampments can serve as de facto overdose prevention sites, Cooper said. It also makes it easier for outreach workers to stay in contact with people they’ve connected with when they know where to find them.

Rethinking common approaches

Despite these realities, many of our standard approaches focus on displacement.

Defensive urban design—defined by researcher and founder of DefensiveTO Cara Chellew as “an intentional design strategy used to guide or restrict people’s behaviour in urban space as a form of crime prevention or order maintenance”—is one such tactic.

A classic example is the park bench with a third rail to prevent lying down. Defensive design in parks can also look like “ghost amenities”—the absence of amenities thought to attract “undesirable” users, like sheltered gathering areas or public washrooms, said Chellew.

But Chellew noted that not only does this approach fail to address root problems, it also makes parks inhospitable for all—especially other vulnerable groups like seniors, people with disabilities, and people with chronic health conditions.

As COVID-19 has made clear, amenities like washrooms “are basic things that all humans need, that should be in public spaces,” Chellew said. “When we're trying to exclude a certain group of people, we're really making the park hostile for everyone.”

Defensive benches with third rail and without shelter from elements. Credit: Cara Chellew
Defensive benches with third rail and without shelter from elements. Credit: Cara Chellew

Encampment clearances are another common response. But these measures are expensive, ineffective, and inhumane when people have nowhere else to go, said Anna Cooper. “We shouldn’t be using resources to constantly displace people from public spaces to nowhere. It's a bad policy, which is doomed to fail, because people have to occupy space,” she said.

Dr. Rose agreed, adding that these measures “often have the perverse outcome of supporting what they’re trying to work against.” His research has found that being forced to relocate or stripped of belongings can create setbacks in people’s efforts to improve their situation.

Displacement from parks can also push people to take shelter in more isolated spaces where they face increased health and safety risks, new research shows.

On top of the ethical and economic issues, park clearances often rest upon the shaky foundation of bylaws that are “constitutionally suspect,” Cooper said.

Some cities have had their bylaws prohibiting sheltering in parks struck down, on the grounds that they violate individual rights to safety and security of the person, set out in Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

While some cities have worked to bring their bylaws into alignment with these rulings, many have not. A key reason these bylaws continue to exist, said Cooper, is due to a lack of resources to challenge them.

“As a homeless person, you can't go to your local Legal Aid office and ask for funding for a lawyer to help you challenge a bylaw,” she said. “There is a huge access-to-justice issue where there's just no funding.”

In light of these realities, it’s easy to wonder what the alternatives are to our current approaches. Fortunately, we can look to Canadian cities that are showcasing other possibilities.

To learn about how cities are working to put non-displacement into practice, see Part 2. And to learn about how creative park programming is connecting communities across housing status, read Part 3.