In Canada, homelessness impacts approximately 235,000 people per year, and between 25,000 and 35,000 people each day. The actual number of individuals experiencing homelessness is undoubtedly higher. For example, 50,000 people experience “hidden homelessness” in Canada, including those temporarily staying with friends, relatives, or otherwise couch surfing because they have inadequate shelter or limited means of acquiring housing. The COVID-19 pandemic has put more people at risk of homelessness due to job loss and unemployment. Additionally, Public Health Ontario and other researchers report that people experiencing homelessness are at an increased risk of COVID-19 infection because of underlying health conditions, living in congregate settings, the inability to physically distance, and the lack of access to basic sanitation.
As a result of COVID-19 and the housing crisis, the number of people experiencing homelessness and relying on encampments has grown, increasing the visibility of homelessness across Ontario. Encampments describe areas where an individual or group of people live in homelessness together using tents or other temporary structures. Encampments have become an important tool for people experiencing homelessness to find a place to stay and access services due to shelter crowding and COVID-19 outbreaks. As a result of this visibility, there has been an intensified outcry from the public to find ‘solutions’ to visible homelessness. As such, various municipalities are working to limit the ways in which people experiencing homelessness use public spaces, regulating activities such as sleeping. As a result, there is an increased use of law enforcement in the response to homelessness concerns, including police force, arrests, physical or verbal altercations, and the destruction of encampments.
Researchers have explored the relationship between policing and homelessness, including who has control over public spaces and ticketing people for offenses related to homelessness. However, there is minimal research on the role by law enforcement and municipal ordinances play in the social control and management of people experiencing homelessness and living in encampments. Therefore, it is important to study how COVID-19 has expanded the role of law enforcement agents using fines and evictions to manage the visibility of people experiencing homelessness. It is necessary to identify the range of law enforcement agents involved in the response to homelessness to better understand the complexities of these relationships, finding ways to support both law enforcement agents, while overseeing the management and human rights of people experiencing homelessness.
My exploratory research investigates the bylaw enforcement response to, and management of, homelessness in Ontario. Using surveys and semi-structured interviews, I investigate how bylaw officers understand their roles and responsibilities when responding to homelessness and homeless encampments in their municipalities.
This study provides one of the first in-depth case study analyses on bylaw responses to homelessness in Ontario and will help to identify the range of enforcement agents that respond to homelessness. This is important when determining the appropriate groups that should be managing homelessness in the community, focusing on respect and support, rather than enforcement. I examine officer perceptions of their training, policies, frontline responses, and community expectations to gain a deeper understanding of how bylaw officers understand their roles and responsibilities. My study will address the role bylaw officers have in managing homelessness and homeless encampments in their communities. It is imperative to investigate how officers respond to homelessness complaints and understand their organizational expectations. Having this information will provide the opportunity to improve bylaw responses to homelessness, benefiting both bylaw officers and people experiencing homelessness. This research is incredibly timely considering the increased media, political, public, and advocacy attention around encampments in municipalities across Canada.
Natasha Martino is a researcher exploring the intersection of homelessness and policing. She is pursuing a Master of Arts in Criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University. Natasha’s research interests are homelessness, enforcement agents, including police, bylaw, private security, social control, regulation, and marginalization. Currently, her exploratory research focuses on the role that bylaw enforcement and municipal ordinances play in the social control and management of homelessness and homeless encampments across Ontario. This research investigates bylaw officers’ perceptions of their roles in response to issues associated with homelessness.
Natasha is a recipient of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Joseph Armand Bombardier Canadian Graduate Scholarship for her Master’s research. She recently helped author a report to the City of Brantford regarding the migration of rural residents to urban areas for social services. Additionally, Natasha has been involved in numerous other homeless and housing-related projects including an evaluation of the Brantford Downtown Outreach Team (BDOT). She is also providing assistance on a project focused on the identification of administrative barriers to social housing in Canada across 67 designated communities. Natasha is a member of the Centre for Research on Security Practices (CRSP) and is engaged in research with the Centre.
Prior to joining the MA program, Natasha earned her Bachelor of Arts Honours in Sociology and Philosophy from Queen’s University in Kingston. During her time at Queen’s, she received numerous awards, including scholarships, distinctions, and community involvement recognition for her academic achievements and community engagement.
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