Toronto’s dossier on homeless people ‘dystopian,’ says advocate as privacy watchdog makes inquiries

Ontario’s privacy watchdog is looking into the dossier of information the City of Toronto compiled on homeless people as it planned to clear Trinity-Bellwoods park where they lived last year.

The development comes after The Canadian Press revealed the inner workings of the city’s months-long planning of its operation to clear parks of encampments that had popped up during the pandemic.

The dossier kept notes on behaviours, health information and photographs of those who lived in the park, internal documents show.

“This is really dystopian stuff,” said Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor with Sanctuary Toronto. 

He said this type of “high-level surveillance” and the collecting of personal information without people’s consent is “kind of the way that the worst governments treat [their] most vulnerable civilians.”

Johnson Hatlem expects it will only further erode trust between the City of Toronto and its homeless residents.

“It’s going to send people further and further underground,” he said, “which is extremely dangerous with the overdose crisis.”

Demonstrators attempting to topple a fence are pepper sprayed by Toronto police officers enforcing an eviction order at an encampment at Lamport Stadium on July 21, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

In a statement, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario said it “has reached out to the City of Toronto to obtain further information about this matter.”

While “affected individuals” can make a complaint, the commissioner’s office noted it can also launch its own investigation if it suspects a privacy breach has occurred.

“At this time, we have not received any complaints from individuals related to this matter,” the office said in a later statement.

While the office has yet to decide whether a formal investigation is required, it said, “Whenever the detailed personal information of individuals is collected, privacy is always a concern … We all benefit as an informed public when those practices are made as transparent as possible.”

“Our office has reached out to the City of Toronto to obtain further information about this matter,” the commissioner’s office said in a statement.

“Any affected individuals may make a privacy complaint to our office.” The commissioner’s office noted it can also launch its own investigation if it suspects a privacy breach has occurred.

Data collected in accordance with FOI laws: city

The city said it has responded to the privacy commissioner, saying the collection of personal information was in accordance with freedom-of-information laws. A city spokesman said it collected the information to better understand the “individual housing, health and supportive needs” as it sought to find a spot indoors for those living in encampments.

“The city has the discretion to collect the information as part of its law enforcement operations as well as ensuring that city services are directed to encampment occupants in an individualized fashion,” Anthony Toderian said in an email.

He said the legal authority was granted by city council under the bylaw named “COVID-19 Response Update: Protecting People Experiencing Homelessness and Ensuring the Safety of the Shelter System.”

“As the personal information was collected under a legal authority the use of this information would meet the requirements of the act,” Toderian wrote.

Top bureaucrats planned the operation for months, internal documents obtained by activists through freedom-of information laws and shared with The Canadian Press show.

On June 22, 2021, the carefully planned operation swung into motion before dawn at Trinity Bellwoods Park. Drones hovered above as city workers erected fences around several homeless encampments within the park.

Encampment supporters defend a group of tents while Toronto police enforce an eviction order in Trinity Bellwoods Park, in Toronto, on Jun. 22, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

There were 268 city workers there that day, the documents show — including more than 100 private security guards the city hired — along with dozens of police officers.

The clearing drew scores of activists and supporters to the park to defend those living there.

Several clashes eventually broke out between police and the homeless and their supporters. A battle erupted over a fence that supporters tried to take down while police fought to keep it upright. Another skirmish broke out when police unleashed pepper spray, which inadvertently hit several security guards, the documents said.

Police in riot gear moved in near the end of the day, once most of the crowd had dispersed, and cleared the park with force.

The city has said it called in police to clear the area because protesters prevented staff from doing their jobs and didn’t leave when they were cautioned.

The city spent nearly $2 million on clearing encampments at three parks, including Trinity Bellwoods, last year.

The city also plans to hire security guards to monitor parks this summer.

In the lead-up to last year’s operation, top city bureaucrats shared several detailed documents about the park.

In one titled “Trinity Bellwoods Park Analysis,” a map of the park is marked with locations of the tents and structures.

A chart identifies each person living in the park by name along with a photograph of their tent and, in some cases, photographs of the encampment resident.

There are also notes on each person’s behaviour, and how the city expects they would respond when asked to leave the park.

The documents upset some people who lived in the Trinity encampments at the time. They said they did not consent to city’s collection of their personal information — nor did they know the information was being collected.

‘They did us dirty’

David Naini, whose legal name is Navid Emanian, said he thought the information the city kept was “weird and creepy.”

“I think it’s the opposite of what they’re supposed to be doing,” the 57-year-old said.

In one entry, the city warns about a man — all names and photographs are redacted in the released documents — who was “most likely to escalate” and “has a large clutter surrounding encampment that he claims to make art with.”

A former Trinity resident who is known in the community as j the letter believes that is about him. (He says his legal name, Jeremy Magyar, harkens back to his life before becoming homeless.)

“They did us dirty,” he said.

“They were taking photographs of me, of my tent, numbering the tent, but never telling me what they were doing with that.”

After he lost his tent at Trinity, he moved to a second encampment — which was cleared by the city and police a month later in another episode that turned violent — and then a third.

At that point, the city shifted gears with a softer approach and offered him and several others living there permanent housing.

Now, dozens of his paintings line the walls, floors and ceiling in his apartment.

Still, he worries that without people living in highly visible encampments concerns facing the vulnerable — including the collection of personal information — will be swept aside.

“I kind of wish I was still on the forefront of being in a tent because I feel like they’re just not going to take me seriously now,” he said.

“I don’t know if there’s justice to be had. We don’t have any rights.”

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