This article was written by a team of students from Carleton University.

The media describe them as “tent cities.” Neighbours view them as eyesores. Homelessness advocates argue they are the result of Canada’s urgent affordable-housing crisis and overburdened shelter system, exacerbated by COVID. It is becoming clear that “rough sleeping encampments,” once thought to be a temporary problem, are at risk of becoming a permanent policy issue.

In 2020 and 2021, rough sleeping encampments appeared in city parks in major centres including Toronto and Ottawa, ranging in size from 10 to 300-plus individuals. Rough sleeping – where individuals experiencing homelessness sleep unsheltered or in temporary shelters outdoors – has begun to reach emergency status in Canada, but it has been happening for years in major urban centres around the world.

Those who sleep outside share many of the challenges faced by other individuals experiencing homelessness: little to no income and mental health and addiction issues. But the decision to sleep rough sets them apart. Motivation to sleep outside can be rooted in personal traumas or because of COVID outbreaks within shelters. Many rough sleepers, especially those living outdoors for a long time, may require social services tailored to more specific mental or physical health issues.

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Encampments across Canada have been met with opposition. Residents have raised legitimate safety concerns, including the risk of fire and a lack of proper sanitation. Municipalities are under pressure to remove encampments because of neighbourhood concerns about criminal activity, excessive garbage, lack of cleanliness and noise.

This has resulted in police interventions, which have become violent in some cases such as in Halifax last summer – a response that harmed rough sleepers, angered advocates and inspired protests. While provincial and federal governments may wish to dismiss rough sleeping as a municipal problem, the larger picture must be considered. Rough sleeping generates costs that are covered by taxpayers. Millions of dollars are spent on emergency services, landscaping repairs, health and legal costs. In 2021, Toronto spent nearly $2 million clearing three encampments. As COVID cases drop, some individuals could return to the shelter system. But the pandemic is not the only reason that rough sleeping exists.

What policies might help?

Short-term policy options must meet rough sleepers where they are – both physically and mentally – rather than force vulnerable individuals to relocate or seek out services in shelters. Any policy response must recognize the needs of rough sleepers as inherently different from others experiencing homelessness.

One of the most effective ways to connect rough sleepers to housing services is by using an autonomy-based approach, researchers in the United Kingdom have found. This means they can make their own decisions about social support.

Traditional policy solutions include constructing tiny homes and modular living units, bolstering the supply of affordable housing and increasing funds for shelters. But rough sleepers may not seek out this type of support. As well, these responses can be expensive or can require land rezoning and are time-consuming to put in place.

Instead, provincial governments should consider a framework for the development of mobile operating services teams (MOST). Based on successes in cities such as Vancouver, these teams provide social and health services, food and sanitation directly to encampments.

Temporary mobile teams would also be equipped with outreach services to help rough sleepers access housing. MOST units, not police, would be the first to respond to the creation of encampments, and MOST staff would build personal relationships with those in the area, supporting them in making their own treatment decisions.

Medium-term policy responses should stem the flow of at-risk individuals becoming homeless. Expanding on an idea suggested by Carleton researcher Steve Pomeroy, we propose a pilot project that would see a homeless housing benefit implemented across Ontario.

Building from the existing Canada-Ontario housing benefit authorized under the National Housing Strategy, a homeless housing benefit would come from funds set aside specifically for rough sleepers and shelter residents, then deliver them either through shelters or the MOST initiative. Recipients would use the monthly stipend, with funding levels based on jurisdiction, to offset rent or other basic living costs to help them stay housed.

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Longer-term policy solutions must increase the overall supply of affordable housing nationwide, an area the Trudeau government flagged as a federal priority in its April 2022 budget. During the pandemic, the federal government also launched the $2.5-billion Rapid-Housing Initiative to provide expedited housing to the country’s most vulnerable people.

Since its launch in October 2020, more than 10,000 new affordable housing units have been created. The 2022 budget includes a $1.5 billion commitment over two years to extend the rapid housing initiative for a third round – an investment expected to allow for construction of another 6,000 units. Increasing the affordable housing stock lessens the burden on overworked and overcrowded shelters while helping rough sleepers and those experiencing homelessness access permanent housing.

The benefits of responding

In 2019, Inn From The Cold (a last-resort not-for-profit housing organization based in Calgary) conducted a social-return analysis on investments for rough sleepers. It found $4.63 in social and economic benefits were generated for every dollar invested in last-resort housing, including fewer emergency room visits and lower substance-abuse costs.

Other research on rough sleepers and “housing first” initiatives have found a plethora of benefits when individuals are in housing, including reducing physical and mental-health issues, less crime and lower substance abuse. Cost savings vary depending on the method used, a predominant body of literature sees net-positive cost savings to government and society.

Current policies do not satisfy the immediate and distinct needs of rough sleepers. The proposed short-, medium- and long-term policy ideas outlined can be cost-effective, evidence-based investments meant to generate long-term savings while ensuring the immediate and urgent needs of rough sleepers are met.

Not responding ignores the human face of this problem and our moral obligation to support the most vulnerable. Canada has a unique opportunity to take stronger action to address the issue of encampment sites before it becomes a major problem, as it already is in several European cities.

The recommendations in this article come from an essay that won the gold medal in this year’s National Annual Public Administration Case Competition, organized by the Canadian Association of Programs in Public Administration (CAPPA) and the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC). The five authors are master of public policy and administration candidates at Carleton University who competed against teams at 13 other graduate schools to generate policy solutions for a timely public policy issue. This year’s challenge was to prevent rough sleeping in municipalities and keep it from becoming an endemic policy problem. Policy Options is a sponsor of the competition, which has been held since 2012. The Carleton team would like to thank its coaches, Dr. Jennifer Stewart and Dr. Robert Shepherd, for their insight and support.

The authors: From left, Ben Phillips, Dong Ngo, Nick Harrison, Sydney Roy and Kelsey Johnson, who won for their presentation Rough Sleeping in Ontario: Managing Ontario’s Encampment Crisis.

Last year’s winner of the National Annual Public Administration Case Competition tackled long-term care. Read about it here: Transforming long-term care starts with creating a national insurance program.

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