To solve the homeless, you need to deal with the underlying reason


The scene was shocking when activists clashed with police officers dismantling a homeless camp in Toronto on July 21st. Eventually, 26 activists were arrested and the camp was removed.

This scenario is becoming very common as all major Canadian cities are addressing the growing problem of urban homeless camps.

Contrary to what activists might argue, cities and police have used incredible patience and restraint in dealing with camps. Housing options are available and are offered with counseling. Weeks of warning will prevent police action on the camp and give residents ample time to relocate if necessary. Physical action to dismantle the camp is a last resort after all other efforts to solve the problem have been attempted.

It’s not that the inhabitants of these camps had nowhere else to go. They chose to stay in the camp despite the warnings and with the encouragement of activists who often seem to want to see the conflict.

Urban homeless camps are not sustainable and are not a long-term solution of any kind to the refugee problem. In December of last year, a propane tank kept by residents ignited in a fire, and the explosion shook Nanaimo’s homeless camp. He was also charged with murder last December after a man was found dead in a homeless camp in Sally, British Columbia. Last April, a 15-year-old boy was sexually assaulted at a homeless camp in Victoria. The inhabitants of these camps cannot be pretended to be harmless. They are troubled people, endangering each other and the communities around them.

The health hazards of dirt on the camp are also real. City parks are not just designed for long-term camping. Many cities are trying to mitigate the problems of extra waste disposal and the placement of portable toilet facilities, but feces and waste are still a problem. Drug-related equipment is often discarded, but in some parks, mice are a problem because municipal crew members do not have safe access to the area for maintenance and cleaning. Campers are suffering and do not consider the use of syringe waste bins, trash cans, or toilet facilities to be their immediate priority.

The harsh reality that most people don’t want to face when it comes to treating people living in homeless camps is that many of them need intervention and treatment. Activists like to argue that the problem is simply a lack of housing, but that is simply not true. Cities offer many types of provisional and long-term housing options for the poor. If a person is deeply involved in the suffering of drug addiction or has serious mental health problems, they cannot be placed in shelters or low-income housing. Untreated addicts and people with mental health problems endanger their peers in their homes with their staff and volunteers. These people need special care and they are going through the cracks. That’s why they are often in tent cities.

Demolition of homeless camps is inevitable, but nothing will change unless people address the underlying reasons for living in these camps. Camping is just a sign of a bigger problem.

People who are seriously addicted or have mental health problems cannot simply heal themselves. They require assessment and treatment, which often means an inpatient system. We must accept that some people may need to be institutionalized, and yes, sometimes against their will. Another option is for people to end up in our prison system or our hospital, which is already under stress due to capacity issues.

A safe treatment center does not have to be like a prison. And the days of old mental hospitals, as depicted in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” are a thing of the past. Safe treatment is not a disciplinary measure. The goal should be patient rehabilitation, not permanent housing. Some may consider forced institutionalization cruel, but is it more cruel than letting people live on the streets? People living in homeless camps are technically free, but miserable and often short-lived.

Chronic homelessness does not solve itself. People who tend to live in tent camps can’t take care of themselves. We have difficult choices: Do we intervene and try to treat them? Or do they keep chasing them from camp to camp?

Now we are trying to be sure that these people are the ones who just hit the path of life and ultimately pull themselves out. In reality, this problem doesn’t go anywhere until you intervene in a way other than dismantling the tent camp.

Cory Morgan is a Calgary-based columnist and business owner.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.