Illustration by Cristian Fowlie

There’s a stretch of corrugated metal that gives the lower Don River its shape, a retaining wall that separates water from bank. It was mostly dull, rusted green, until a series of blue, hand-painted phrases appeared along parts of the wall last fall. You can see them from the trail that runs parallel to the river, and they read like a guest list of all the people you might find in the Don River Valley Park. “A park for artists,” reads one. “A park for the Indigenous,” reads another. “A park for the homeless.” The installation is titled A Park For All by artist Will Kwan, and it asks, simply: Who are parks like this one for?

In recent years, city employees called parks ambassadors have become unlikely mediators in this debate, often dealing with people who have very different answers to the question. Toronto’s Parks, Forestry, and Recreation division created the role in 2003 and hired a full-time employee, Troy Ford, to act as an envoy for acceptable behaviour in the city’s 1,400-plus parks—informing people of bylaws, referring them to city services, and calling police when needed. When the program was created, it was with the mandate to ensure that parks were safe, inclusive, and welcoming for all. But the closing line of Kwan’s work bluntly captures the mandate’s messy contradictions: “A park for all. A park for some.”

Some days, a parks ambassador might talk to a person whose dog is off leash where it shouldn’t be, or using a barbecue without a permit. Or, with another seasonal ambassador in tow, a pair might respond to requests or concerns voiced by residents through 311. But a significant portion of the ambassadors’ time is spent downtown, from Yonge Street to the Don Valley in an area known as the Downtown East, engaging with the city’s most vulnerable residents—those struggling with addiction, experiencing homelessness, or living with mental illness. Faced with crowded or unsafe shelters, and nowhere else to go, many take refuge in the parks and are forced to live their lives in public without the luxury of private space. Some drink or do drugs. Others sleep on benches, or put up makeshift homes. The ambassadors’ job is to engage with these people, too—sometimes at the request of frustrated residents who feel their neighbourhoods have become unsafe and that they can no longer enjoy nearby parks.

There is a long history of bureaucracy and bylaws being wielded against the poor, and cities have gone to great lengths to make those experiencing homeless feel unwelcome in public spaces.

According to the city, ambassador engagements with encampments in parks have risen steadily the past few years—from 110 in 2014, to 413 in 2018. The number of homeless people that have been referred to the city’s Shelter, Support and Housing agency has also skyrocketed from 212 in 2012 to 2,668 in 2018—double the year prior. For most of the program’s sixteen-year history, the only ambassador was Troy Ford, and sometimes a seasonal partner. Last year, they expanded the program’s staff to six—two year-round ambassadors, and four seasonal—to keep up with the demand. The program is now a key component of a proposed five-year action plan to address urgent health and safety concerns in the Downtown East that will be considered by City Council this month. Put another way, a division perhaps better known for staffing the beaches with lifeguards and pruning precarious branches has also been partly responsible for responding to some of the most urgent and complex crises facing the city in recent years.

Outreach workers and homeless advocates haven’t always been happy with the results—seeing the ambassadors less as providers of social support than security guards, making parks welcome for everyone but the poor. “What that program does is exclude poorer folks from accessing public space,” said Jen Ko, a registered nurse who helps run the Moss Park Overdose Prevention Site (OPS), which has drawn the ire of some nearby residents. “Superficial beautifying and gentrifying is sort of the main goal, and investing in resources for people is not,” Ko later said. It’s an urban struggle that goes back generations, and not just in Toronto. But with the city in the midst of multiple crises—housing, homelessness and overdoses chief among them—there’s a renewed urgency to defining, and enforcing, who our parks are truly for.

In the city of Berkeley, California, just north of Oakland, there is a patch of land owned by the University of California that is known as the People’s Park. Though it has served as a home for people experiencing homelessness for decades, and a hub for community meals and support, the threat of redevelopment frequently looms. In 2007, a design agency proposal for the future of the park stated that delivering food and social services to the park’s homeless was “incompatible with the broad objective of making this space enjoyable for community members.” The park’s residents required comprehensive care facilities that a park could not provide, and would not fit the space’s imagined programming—special events, farmer’s markets, art installations. “Public space is a struggle,” wrote Don Mitchell, a Syracuse University geography professor who has closely watched the transformation of the People’s Park over the years. The most recent plan, to build student housing on the site, was announced last year.

In the mid-1990s, Mitchell described the “two opposed, and perhaps irreconcilable, ideological visions of the nature and purpose of public space.” There is the vision of parks, and public space more generally, as space free from institutional control or coercion—from police, or parks ambassadors, and encroaching privatization. And then there is the vision of public space as controlled and orderly, for passive use, or for recreation and entertainment. “Users of this space must be made to feel comfortable, and they should not be driven away by unsightly homeless people or unsolicited political activity,” Mitchell writes.

In many, if not most cities, parks skew towards the latter. There is a long history of bureaucracy and bylaws being wielded against the poor, and cities have gone to great lengths to make those experiencing homelessness feel unwelcome in public spaces. There are laws against panhandling, or from sitting or lying down on sidewalks and streets. Some cities ban tents in public spaces, including parks, or the basic act of sleeping during specific times. The proliferation of so-called public-private spaces—governed not by cities but corporate interests, like New York City’s sprawling new Hudson Yards—have brought increased scrutiny via electronic surveillance and security guards. Even the design of public space has been weaponized, with benches and other surfaces specifically designed to deter people from lying down—or outright removed, as patrons of Toronto’s Allan Gardens found this past Spring. (Councillor Wong-Tam told residents four benches were removed for repair but “some resident stakeholders have requested that they not be returned, citing safety concerns,” and “an agreeable plan for their re-introduction” is still to be determined.) “Homeless people forced the question of public space: what it was for, who belonged in it and who did not,” Mitchell writes.

At the Toronto charitable group Sanctuary—a community space with programs and support services for people in need—Greg Cook meets with people who panhandle, hang out in parks, or sleep on sidewalks. He says that funding cuts to housing, welfare, and disability in the 1990s left streets and parks as the only affordable places for many people to live, and homelessness became more visible. But rather than build enough affordable housing, or provide adequate financial aid that meets the cost of living, the city turned to enforcement and individualized response—fining panhandlers and squeegee kids, kicking people out of Nathan Phillips Square, and sending ambassadors to walk the parks.

Scholars argue the goal of these laws is to re-configure public spaces as places for tourists, middle-class residents, office workers, and businesses, much to the detriment of vulnerable people who have just as much of a right to be there too. Many, like Mitchell, have spent the past few decades researching what’s been characterized as “the end of public space”—a slow-burn effort to erode the commons and push the poor, the homeless, and the vulnerable out, in favour of beautification and economic interests. Cara Chellew, a public space advocate in Toronto who has studied Mitchell’s work, summed our current reality up well in research of her own: “Spaces that people experiencing homelessness use in order to survive is shrinking through privatization, defensive design techniques, and laws that prohibit behaviours that are essential for survival.”

In Toronto, Cook points to Yonge and Dundas Square, which is managed as a business venture by a public-private partnership with the city. Complete with private security and a laundry list of rules around permits, vendors, and performances, it is designed to prioritize the kinds of enlightened programming—concerts, markets, special events—once imagined for Berkely’s People’s Park. “Even though it’s public space—it’s supposed to be a public square—it has a whole suite of rules that other public space doesn’t have,” Cook said.

For people experiencing homelessness in Toronto, there are many reasons to seek refuge downtown. There are the overdose prevention sites, health clinics, and support for mental health. There are legal services and resume clinics and community spaces like Sanctuary. Unlike in the suburbs, almost everything is here, and relatively close. And yet the shelters are often full or overcrowded, which can pose health and safety risks. The wait for affordable housing can stretch for years. And even when housing is available, it may still be too expensive for a person on welfare and other stagnant subsidies to afford, or too far away from the support and services a person needs. It should come as no surprise then that so many people live in Toronto’s downtown parks—and why so much of the parks ambassadors’ time is focused here, sometimes at residents’ request.

“A combination of the emergency crisis of opioid-related deaths, an overwhelmed shelter system, a new cycle of problematic use of parks, and ongoing structural poverty issues have generated a true threat to the safety of our communities, including residents, businesses, our homeless populations, and our most vulnerable people,” said former Councillor Lucy Troisi—who created the parks ambassador program while manager of the Parks and Recreation division—at a Community Development and Recreation Committee meeting last summer.

At many such committee meetings, residents of Cabbagetown and Moss Park tell city councillors about the syringes, garbage, and human excrement they find in their parks, and the violence and crime they say has spilled into the streets nearby. The word “balance” comes up often, usually in reference to the disproportionate number of shelters and support services that residents say have changed the character of the Downtown East and should be spread throughout the city instead. Resident Sylvie Greeniaus told councillors during a committee meeting last summer that police and parks ambassadors stopped entering Moss Park after the OPS arrived. “The park is now being owned by the faction that surround the trailer,” she said at the time, advocating for its removal. “We’re not allowed in the park anymore.” (The site has since moved indoors.) In response to what Cabbagetown South Residents’ Association head Karen Marran described as an extreme rise in neighbourhood crime—ranging from assaults to break-ins and vehicle damage—resident Jennifer Walker told councillors in March, “our community is scared and living in fear.”

In these committee meetings, Councillor Wong-Tam acknowledged that even the neighbourhood’s most vulnerable residents have seen an increase in violence, and has cautioned against simply painting concerned residents as NIMBYs. But Cook, the Sanctuary outreach worker, doesn’t believe everyone’s intentions are pure. “I would argue a lot of the complaints that middle or upper-middle class people make are they just don’t want poor people in their parks,” says Cook. “There’s nothing illegal about hanging out in a park.”

“Homeless people forced the question of public space: what it was for, who belonged in it and who did not.”

Given that, some homeless advocates question how helpful the ambassadors have been—especially given there are already outreach workers to refer people experiencing homelessness to shelters and to provide them with support. One common criticism is that the ambassadors dress similar to police, with blue plants and yellow reflective vests, and present themselves with a similar air of intimidating authority (Cook says they look like bike cops from afar). Ko says that some of the people who visit the Moss Park OPS come away from their interactions with the ambassadors feeling upset at being hassled awake or evicted from their home. “Mostly that looks like getting a threatening attitude and a note taped to your tent, and feeling really pressured to move your belongings to…nowhere,” said Ko. “They don’t present other options.”

According to the city, any similarities with police aren’t deliberate, and the training ambassadors receive covers “homelessness and people living with poverty, understanding opioids and naloxone administration, Indigenous sensitivity, understanding mental illness, anger management, community engagement, anti-oppression, and community consultation.” (The city declined to make Ford or any of the other ambassadors available for an interview.) Peter White, a manager with the Parks, Forestry and Recreation division who oversees the ambassador program, also disputed the characterization of the ambassadors as park security guards. He stressed that their work is “purely engagement,” and any enforcement is left to bylaw officers or police. “The bottom line is, it’s public space, and everybody has a right to be in a public park,” said White. “We’re working with these people to try and get them the help that they need.”

Yet multiple outreach workers expressed a similar sentiment: people experiencing homelessness already know what help is available to them, and the thing they need most is housing. If the city wants to get people out of its parks, advocates say, then it needs to start by building more truly affordable homes. For its part, the city says that it housed 260 people living on the streets through its Streets to Homes program last year, and that Shelter, Support, and Housing moved more than 8,100 people into housing from shelters with help from community partners. And yet, the frustration among outreach workers tells a different story.

“Housing workers are telling me they don’t even bother trying to get somebody into a market rent,” Cook told me, the waitlist is so long. At the Moss Park OPS, Ko says there’s a “running joke” among patrons—“a chorus of people shouting ‘streets to nowhere’”—whenever Streets to Homes employees show up. She knows people that have been trying to get housing for two years and are still without a home. Advocates for those experiencing homelessness called on the city to declare the housing crisis an emergency and for the creation of a national housing program that would ensure homes are available for all.

“People need a secure door. A kitchen. They need a bed,” Cook said, things the ambassadors can’t provide. When it comes to the city’s most vulnerable, says Cook, the ambassadors are “there to keep people quiet, to keep them out of the parks, to make sure they don’t set up a tent—all things people do to survive.” The program may have been created with a mandate is to keep the city’s parks welcoming for all, but artist Will Kwan’s installation along the riverbank of Don River Valley Park is a stark reminder of how fraught, per the artist’s statement, this “utopian conception of a homogenous public park space” can be.