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Urban Camping: Roughing It To Avoid People And The Pandemic

With Canada Day just days away, it’s natural to start thinking about summer vacation. The national holiday seems to have a greater impact on the summer mindset than the actual first day of the season. The challenge this year is finding something to do, something open and able to accommodate the need for social bubbles and physical distancing due to the pandemic.

After three-plus months of self-quarantine and working from home, a staycation is anything but attractive to many people. Travel by air right now is less than ideal too. That leaves travel by land, although cross-border road-trips from province to province are fraught with uncertainty. By now you have seen news of attacks on Alberta-plated cars entering British Columbia. Notes on car windows are telling Albertans to go home and stay home. Scratches on car doors suggest taking the notes serious.

If travel to another country is uninviting and travellers to another province are unwelcome, the solution might be to just stay at home — in your home province. For many, that means looking for local options, like camping.

Yahoo Finance is reporting a surge in camping reservations and RV sales as COVID-19 lockdowns lift. Bloomberg News reports RV shopping is up 30 percent at some dealerships over the same time last year. Toby O'Rourke, president and CEO of Kampgrounds of America (KOA), with a network of 500+ franchised campgrounds throughout North America, says of those recently surveyed, "One third of people who have never camped before say they're considering it now.” O’Rourke adds, “We're expecting more people to give camping a try. You can camp close to home, and it's an affordable vacation option."

Car camping is on the rise and so too is urban camping, only it is not what you might expect. The camps or encampments in and around Toronto are an accumulation of homeless people who are not trying to escape the city but escape the virus. To date, the City of Toronto has identified 600 known cases of COVID-19 among the city’s homeless population.

A recent story in The Toronto Sun reported, “The number of homeless encampments in the city has doubled during the pandemic because people fear contracting the COVID-19 virus in the overcrowded shelter system.” It is estimated that more than 100 encampments have recently gone up in all areas in the city, including in ravines and alongside off-ramps. An encampment in Moss Park, located in the heart of the city, is also in the City’s crosshairs with clearing a consideration. Recent clearouts of homeless encampments have led to standoffs with residents.

The head of the city’s shelter department, Mary-Anne Bédard has said, “We have made a commitment not to clear a site without offering everyone a placement, but we're not always able to offer everyone a placement of their choice.”

In mid-April, Bédard said the city had moved 1,000 homeless people out of jammed shelters and into hotel rooms, new emergency shelters and public housing units. In response, Greg Cook, an outreach worker at Sanctuary — a church and homeless outreach group — added, with more than 7,000 people in the shelter system, “That’s a drop in the bucket.”

Cooks says, “I have talked to people who have left shelters that don’t feel safe. There are a number of positive cases at shelters. You can’t physically distance there and there’s less than six feet apart in many shelters.” Those staying in shelters “have to share a communal washroom that isn’t being cleaned more than usual,” he adds. At some facilities, “Only half the staff are wearing PPE (personal protective equipment).”

Vacations are meant to be a time to recharge, an escape. But to where?

This year, the options are few. Camping may be it. For Toronto’s homeless population, roughing it means a staycation from the risk of falling ill but it’s no holiday; there is no escaping the fear of catching COVID.




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