Webinar Insights on Homelessness, parks and COVID-19
Discover the 7 key insights from our webinar “Homelessness, parks & COVID-19: How can we shift the approach from displacement to inclusion?” The webinar is part of our series 7 Questions: The Future of Parks and Public Spaces.
Our September 23rd webinar titled “Homelessness, parks & COVID-19: How can we shift the approach from displacement to inclusion?” inspired the seven key insights below, which we hope will continue to spark conversation and motivate cities to shift away from displacement-centric approaches and prioritize inclusive alternatives.
The webinar is part of our series 7 Questions: The Future of Parks and Public Spaces. The webinar panellists were Nakuset, Director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal and Matthew Huxley, Chair of the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness Lived Experience Working Group.
Recognize parks as homes
While both panelists highlighted the need for permanent and supportive housing solutions, Matthew expressed that having a place to call one’s own—whether a tent or a traditional house—is essential to basic wellbeing. The perception of parks as illegitimate places to live can serve to normalize or justify the displacement of unhoused people from parks.
“We’re all people too, and we all have the need for a home. Whether it’s someone’s tent or an actual house, that’s still a house, right? … Whether it’s a park or under a bridge or behind a building, that piece that you set up for yourself, that is your space, that is your home, everyone needs to have at least something like that they can call their own so that they can feel like they are a member of society.” – Matthew Huxley
End enforcement and criminalization of homelessness
Matthew discussed his experiences being ticketed for activities required for survival, such as sleeping in parks, and the ways that displacement efforts by city workers, bylaw officers and police cause psychological harm by reinforcing the message that people experiencing homelessness don’t deserve a home.
Nakuset spoke about the impacts of racial profiling on Indigenous communities experiencing homelessness, and the unfair practice of ticketing people for improper social distancing during COVID-19 when park amenities are not designed to support this—for example, small tents or shade structures force people to huddle in order to shelter from the elements.
Engage with homeless communities and advocates, and put their advice into action
Both panellists emphasized that people with lived experience know what works best and what is needed - city staff should consult them directly to devise solutions. To get started: meet people in parks that are known gathering places, have an open and respectful conversation, treat people as experts and as equals, and take a trauma-informed and culturally appropriate approach.
To recognize the time, energy, and expertise of people with current or past experience of homelessness, be sure to offer compensation. After listening, commit to putting learnings into practice—Nakuset advised aiming to implement at least 50% of the solutions recommended during an engagement.
Bring services to parks
Resilience Montreal brought amenities including washrooms, showers, clothing, food, and counselling services outdoors into the park. Nakuset noted that there are challenges to doing this work outdoors, so consider how to collaborate with and complement the work of local indoor service organizations.
With the colder weather and a possible second wave of COVID-19 coming, Nakuset and would like to see large, heated tents brought into parks to create more comfortable conditions for people experiencing homelessness.
Use park programming to build bridges and address stigma
Nakuset said that arts and cultural events, led by Indigenous people in Cabot Square, have helped to bring housed community members into the park and challenge their misconceptions of unhoused neighbours.
According to Nakuset, the recipe for a great event is good food, music, and an opening led by an Elder—which can help to prompt reflection about how people relate to a place, and to one another. Read this post from Park People’s resource library to learn more about implementing an event like this in your local park.
Recognize the legacy of displacement that led to the creation of many urban parks
This is a legacy that is repeated and reinforced today through ongoing practices to displace people experiencing homelessness from parks, in a context where urban Indigenous people are eight times more likely to experience homelessness than non-Indigenous people.
Understand that homelessness is an individual and complex experience
Matthew explained that each individual experiencing homelessness will have a different background, which may include systemic and/or personal traumas and immediate and long-term needs.
While there is a general lack of affordable housing available in many cities, there is also no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to housing. For example, an offer of shelter at a hotel located on the outskirts of the city may work for one person, but may not be suitable for another person who depends on services downtown, Matthew said. Allow for a diversity of experiences, and respect people’s decisions to locate in the place that feels most comfortable for them—including in a park.
Watch the Webinar
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