The city of Toronto will hire private security guards to keep constant watch over some city parks for at least a year, in an effort to deter homeless people from setting up camp.

The effort, first reported by the CBC, will focus on some of the parks where the city launched sizable operations to eject people camping last summer — including the west end’s Trinity Bellwoods, Alexandra Park and Lamport Stadium. Security will also patrol Dufferin Grove 24/7, and a mobile team will cycle through the downtown east’s Moss Park and Barbara Hall Park.

The mobile teams will be in the latter two locations “at least a couple times a day,” city spokesperson Brad Ross said on Thursday, and could also attend other parks “as needed.”

It’s a move the city says is meant to prevent a revival of the large encampments that were formed in Toronto, along with other major cities, after COVID-19 hit. While there have long been hundreds of Torontonians living outside, the pandemic saw those numbers swell, and camps move from more covert locations like under the Gardiner Expressway to Trinity Bellwoods.

Last April, a street assessment estimated that 742 people in Toronto were living outside, or 10 per cent of the overall homeless population — an increase from the estimated 533 people, or six per cent of the homeless population, when the same assessment was conducted in early 2018.

Private security wouldn’t be tasked with any enforcement, Ross said. Their job would be to notify the city’s corporate security team if someone tried to erect a tent or other makeshift structure. City security would then be told to call the city’s Streets to Homes team, who Ross said would be dispatched to try to convince the person involved to come into a shelter.

“They’re not enforcing. They’re not engaging. They’re there as a presence,” Ross said.

The precise cost of the extra security is yet unknown, with the city recently issuing a request for proposals that closes on May 30. The initial arrangement would be for a year, though Ross said the idea was to give the city options to extend the contract for up to four additional years.

It’s an approach that frustrates Jennifer Jewell, a longtime Torontonian who fell into homelessness in 2020, and lived in a west-end camp before accepting a space in one of the city’s temporary shelter hotels. “The city is doing this because it’s spring and summer, and the city doesn’t want housed people seeing homeless people,” Jewell said Thursday.

While the city maintains that living in encampments is unsafe and unhealthy, as well as a contravention of its bylaws on camping, Jewell argued that deterring people from setting up camp in the likes of Dufferin Grove or Trinity Bellwoods wouldn’t necessarily bring more people inside — but could push people to the fringes, into spots like underneath the Gardiner.

“For the money they’ll be spending on this, they could be housing people,” she said.

A recent city hall report offered a glimpse at the price tag of ending chronic homelessness in Toronto, with street surveys indicating the majority of people living outside fall in that category.

If the city created 1,800 new supportive housing units — affordable homes with services like mental and physical health care — annually for three years, city staff believe it would be enough to eradicate long-term homelessness. That pace would then need to be maintained.

The city’s current housing plans aren’t fully funded, with the staff report pointing specifically to $27 million it needed from Queen’s Park this year, plus $48 million per year heading forward.

Ross, asked if the security funds could be directed toward housing efforts, pointed to other money the city was spending, including funds that have gone toward creating new modular supportive housing units over the last few years. Preventing encampments from forming, he argued, also meant the city wouldn’t have to spend money on enforcement down the line.

“There’s going to be some money that needs to be invested in prevention,” he said.

Victoria Gibson is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering affordable housing. Reach her via email: