Research Chat

By-Law Enforcement Responses to Homelessness and Homeless Encampments in Ontario. Natasha Martino, Criminology.

Episode Summary

The 7th episode of Research Chat Season 2 features Natasha Martino, a Masters of Criminology researcher focused on the role that by-law enforcement and municipal ordinances play in the social control and management of homelessness and homeless encampments across Ontario. She is interviewed by Alishau (Ali) Diebold, a feminist community-based researcher, social worker, and human rights advocate who is pursuing a PhD in Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University. Both researchers examine the interactions that vulnerable people have with the criminal justice system.

Episode Notes

The episode features:

Episode Transcription


[jingle plays]


Shawna Reibling  00:04

Welcome to the second season of Research Chat. In this season graduate students share with each other the challenges of their research work. In this episode Ali Diebold will interview Natasha Martino.



[jingle fades]


Shawna Reibling  00:22

Ali Diebold, pronouns she/her, is a feminist, community based researcher, social worker, and human rights advocate who's pursuing a PhD in Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University. She's beginning the data collection stage of her research and her supervisor is Dr. Bree Akesson. 


Shawna Reibling  00:41

Natasha Martino, pronouns she/her, is a researcher in the realm of homelessness and policing, pursuing a Master's of Arts in Criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University's Brantford campus. Natasha's research interests are homelessness enforcement agents, including police, bylaw, and private security, social control, regulation, and marginalization. Currently, her exploratory research focuses on the role that by law enforcement and municipal ordinances play in the social control and management of homelessness, and homeless encampments across Ontario. This research investigates bylaw officers perceptions of their work in response to issues associated with homelessness. She is the recipient of the Joseph Armand Bombardier Canadian Graduate Scholarship by SSHRC for her master's research. She recently helped author a report to the City of Brantford regarding the migration of rural residents to urban areas for social services. 

Additionally, Natasha has been involved in numerous other projects through research assistantship opportunities. This includes the evaluation of the Brantford downtown outreach team, as well as providing assistance on the project focused on the identification of administrative barriers to social housing in Canada across 67 designated communities. 


Shawna Reibling  02:01

Natasha is a member of the Laurier Research Centre - the Centre for Research on Security Practices (CRSP) and is actively engaged in research with the centre. Prior to joining the MA program, she earned her Bachelor of Arts honours in sociology and philosophy from Queen's University in Kingston. During her time at Queen's she received numerous awards including scholarships, distinctions and community involvement recognitions for her community engagement and her academic achievements. She is at the analysis stage of her research and her supervisors Dr. Carrie Sanders and Dr. Erin Dej. Welcome to you both. 


Shawna Reibling  02:37

Today is very Branford focused as you're both working with faculty members based out of the Branford campus, and I'm thrilled to highlight graduate research emerging from the Brantford-based research community. I'm interested to hear your perspectives on the criminal justice system. As you both are examining interactions that vulnerable people have with the criminal justice system.


Alishau Diebold  02:58

What phase of the criminal justice system are you examining?


Natasha Martino  03:01

So I'm specifically examining bylaw enforcement and their responses to homelessness and homeless encampments across Ontario. So bylaw enforcement officers have a very involved role in managing homelessness and homeless encampments. As concerns associated with these issues are within the jurisdiction of municipal authorities. So issues related to homelessness are managed through bylaws specific to policing, fire and safety, sanitation and social services. That being said, I'm examining the front line bylaw enforcement response to homelessness and encampments. 


Alishau Diebold  03:33

Thanks for that answer. What did you set out to discover in your research? 


Natasha Martino  03:39

So to answer this question, I'll first reiterate my two research questions just to give you an idea of the depth of my project. So my first research question is, What perceptions do bylaw officers holds towards people experiencing homelessness, homeless encampments and public safety? And the second research question is, How have these perceptions been impacted by COVID-19? 

So in doing so, I'm hoping to both understand the bylaw enforcement response to and management of homelessness across Ontario, as well as the perceptions of bylaw officers in their work that's related to homelessness and encampments. So really trying to understand not only the response, but also how bylaw officers feel about this response and what their duties should be and are right now.


Alishau Diebold  04:27

Thanks for connecting those concepts for us. How did you become interested in your research area?


Natasha Martino  04:34

So this is a great question. When I applied for the Master of Arts program in Criminology at Laurier. I had a tonne of different interests and I really wasn't sure what I wanted to focus on for my research at that point. I graduated from my undergraduate degree at Queen's right as COVID-19 began - as many others did as well - and I found myself struggling to figure out a path for the upcoming years and just lost for words in terms of my future academic career. That being said, I knew I was interested in policing and homelessness as this was a topic that I focused on a lot throughout my undergrad and papers and other assignments. So I really wanted to investigate further what this relationship looks like. 

However, after some discussion with my supervisors, we realized that policing and homelessness is a - first very important topic to analyze - but also a very researched area. So that being said, we dug a little bit deeper into this topic, and we found that there is a substantial gap in the literature, and that the relationship between bylaw enforcement and homelessness has actually never been investigated before. So bylaw enforcement is an often overlooked enforcement agent when it comes to homelessness and encampment complaints. So that made it a very important and perfect subject to study for my MA.

 So this is really important to investigate because, as I mentioned earlier, issues related to homelessness are usually within the responsibility of municipal authorities. But municipal authorities tend to be unaware of their legal obligation under human rights laws due to minimal guidance and support from provincial, territorial, and federal governments. So this can actually result in the provision of bylaws, local police, and zoning policies that displace people experiencing homelessness, compromising their physical and psychological health. 

Additionally, obviously keeping in mind the COVID 19 pandemic, we've seen that there's been rising visibility of homelessness and encampments, generating a public response to solve the quote unquote "problem" using law enforcement measures. As such, there's this increasing need to explore the interactions between people experiencing homelessness and bylaw enforcement to better understand how bylaw officers manage concerns associated with homelessness. So I was really excited when we stumbled across this gap because I think that it offered a really incredible opportunity to make a substantial contribution to the literature on a topic that is so important, as I mentioned, and extremely timely, as I said earlier too, the COVID-19 pandemic adds yet another layer of importance to this topic, especially when considering the influence of the pandemic on employment, housing and social support networks. 


Alishau Diebold  07:13

And so how are you exploring your research question Natasha?


Natasha Martino  07:17

So my research involves mixed methods, including both qualitative surveys and semi-structured interviews. The reason I chose to do mixed methods is due to lack of literature on this topic. So mixed methods allowed me to provide both breadth and depth to an under researched area. The first phase of my project was a qualitative survey designed to distribute to people who are currently employed as bylaw enforcement officers in Ontario, and to have interacted with people experiencing homelessness, or residents of homeless encampments in the last 30 days. 

After receiving approval from the research ethics board, I reached out to 60 bylaw agencies across Ontario, sending them information about my study, a recruitment poster and a link to my survey. So I received 46 survey responses in this phase of my project. And the final question of the survey allowed participants to note their interest in a follow up semi structured qualitative interview to further explore key analytic sights gained from the surveys. So this was an option, I provided everyone who filled out a survey, just to give them the opportunity if they wanted to open up the space to further dive deep into some of the things that they mentioned in their survey. So I conducted nine interviews, and they averaged around 48 minutes per interview. 


Alishau Diebold  08:33

So could you speak to us more about perceptions of their work and homelessness? 


Natasha Martino  08:38

Yes, absolutely. So I think this is a great question, because I do find that this is a very important part of my project and I want to make sure that this comes across as such. So I'm not just analyzing bylaw responses to homelessness, but also, as I mentioned earlier, really trying to get into their understanding and perceptions of their work in regard to homelessness and encampments. So I want to understand how bylaw, officers feel about responding to homelessness complaints, and whether or not they think they should be the group responding to these complaints. 

So to try to investigate this further, I have a few questions in my interview guide. So first, one of the questions is, What do you think the role of bylaws should be when it comes to homelessness and homeless encampments? And the second question is, Who do you think should be responsible for managing and responding to homelessness in your community? So these questions really are there to understand these perceptions and how officers feel about their responses to homelessness. So, again, I included this in my research because of the lack of literature on this subject - this seems to be an ongoing theme. 

So rather than focusing strictly on actual responses to homelessness, I want to try and understand how officers feel about the responses, their duties and who should be responding if they feel as though it should not be bylaw. So this also helps to find ways to improve the responses of bylaw and to determine who could be more supportive to those experiencing homelessness or residing in local encampments. 


Alishau Diebold  10:06

What key messages have emerged from your research? 


Natasha Martino  10:09

So since I'm just finishing up my coding process right now, I can only discuss what has emerged thus far. And it's important to note that more will emerge as I continue my analysis and start constructing my chapters. But I will discuss three common themes that have emerged so far throughout my process. 

One of the main themes I've found is that, bylaw officers are all noting a lack of training in regard to homelessness and encampments. So almost all bylaw enforcement officers that I have interacted with, have mentioned that they have not received any training specifically directed at responding to people experiencing homelessness, or how to respond when they get a complaint about homeless encampments. Some have mentioned other training courses such as those related to mental health, self defense, conflict, de-escalation, first aid, crisis intervention, and the use of weapons. Of course, all of these training courses are extremely valuable and do overlap when responding to complaints associated with homelessness. But I think, and a few officers that I've spoken to think as well, that it would be equally important to have training courses specifically for people experiencing homelessness, and responding to complaints directed at local encampments, just to ensure they are responding appropriately, and offering support whenever possible. 


Natasha Martino  11:26

Another theme that I have found thus far is a lack of policies guiding bylaw in their interactions with people experiencing homelessness or encampments. Many officers have mentioned a lack of guidelines or internal policies related to responding to homeless complaints. Some officers have discussed safety measures that are outlined, such as investigating a complaint with a partner. But these do not directly outline ways to respond to homelessness complaints. 

A few officers have discussed wanting more guidelines to increase confidence when responding to these complaints and ensuring that they respond in an appropriate way. And my last theme that I'll discuss today is that many officers have mentioned that bylaws should not be on the frontlines when dealing with this quote unquote, "issue". So almost all bylaw officers I've spoken to have agreed that by law or law enforcement is not the appropriate group to be responding to homelessness and encampment complaints in their community. 

Whether this is because of my aforementioned lack of training resources or staff, they claim that their responses are not adequate and do not solve any actual systemic issues. Instead, many officers rely on moving people along which does not support or help people experiencing homelessness whatsoever. This simply displaces people experiencing homelessness, pushing them away from available support systems and to isolated areas in their community.


Alishau Diebold  12:47

And what does your research cause you to reflect on? 


Natasha Martino  12:50

Okay, this is a great question. So my research has caused me to reflect on a few different things, both in terms of my project and my personal life. So I'll start with the project. So while I've always reflected on the homelessness situation, this project has definitely encouraged me to reflect on this even further and really understand the responses to homelessness in Ontario. I never realized the extent to which different enforcement agents were involved in this response and the impact that this could have on people experiencing homelessness and the officers themselves. Before I started this project, I didn't even know how involved by law was in this response and I think it's been so eye opening to see the weight of what they are expected to deal with when it comes to homelessness. 

I think it's important to note that in today's society, a lot of information about enforcement comes from the media, especially in events that include a negative response from the police. I have learned from a few of my participants that they know they shouldn't be responding to homelessness concerns, because they're not equipped to do so whether that be due to a lack of training or policies guiding their interactions, they realize that their responses to homelessness are not always rooted in support, and that more needs to be done to actually support this population. So this has allowed me to really reflect on the agents who are currently responding to homelessness, and who would be better equipped to respond to these complaints, and understand that even bylaw, although they're tasked with responding, many of them feel that they are not equipped to do so. 


Natasha Martino  14:16

Also, my research has led me to reflect on many aspects of my personal life. So this includes things like my interest, goals, and even my capabilities. So through this project, I have become deeply invested in this topic, and I'm wanting to explore the relationship even further. I've reflected on my future goals and aspirations and have decided to apply to pursue a PhD to continue investigating this relationship, potentially at a cross country level to compare the bylaw responses to homelessness in different provinces. 

I don't think the research on this topic will conclude with mine and I want to see how the responses differ at a broader level and try to investigate this relationship even further. And this also may sound kind of cheesy, but I've also been able to reflect on what I'm capable of. Completing a master's and writing a thesis can be very challenging, especially when you throw a global pandemic in the mix, and having to complete all my tasks from home with additional distractions and responsibilities that come with staying at home 24/7. But with the support of my supervisors, and peers, this has been an incredible and eye opening experience, especially with regard to what I'm capable of. 

And I have hit many different milestones throughout this project, whether that be receiving grants that we spend weeks applying for, or finally making it through the data collection phase. Either way, whatever milestone it is, I'm very proud of myself. And I definitely just want to touch on how research makes you really reflect on what you can do in a short amount of time.


Alishau Diebold  15:51

Thanks for that insightful response, Natasha. So what are the next steps in your work?


Natasha Martino  15:57

So my next steps are a few steps that I'm very, very excited for. As of right now, my main task is to finish my focused coding and power through my analysis. And then after that, I will work on constructing and drafting my thesis chapters. So I'm really excited to do this and figure out what other themes emerge throughout actually crafting my chapters and seeing what I come up with through that phase. 


Alishau Diebold  16:25

This is a very exciting time. 


Natasha Martino  16:27

Yeah, definitely. 


Alishau Diebold  16:29

And so how has COVID-19 pandemic changed your thesis?


Natasha Martino  16:34

This is a good question. I think we cannot ignore COVID because we are going on, what, two years of having to adapt and deal with the pandemic in many different ways. So, yeah, the COVID-19 pandemic has definitely presented a few barriers both personally and in regard to my actual thesis project. So, as I just mentioned, it has been quite the adjustment doing a thesis completely from home. I've only actually been to the Brantford campus two or three times and I've maintained almost all my communication with my supervisors via email, zoom, and Microsoft Teams. 

But, although this has been a challenge, it's also made me realize how adaptable I can be to the current circumstances. So although this is not ideal, I've made it work thus far, and I'm proud that I've been able to do so and I'm very proud of other students have been able to do so too, because I know it's a very challenging time. And then in terms of my project, COVID-19 definitely did impact the construction and actual research process of my thesis. So I moved to a complete remote methodology, distributing my surveys online using Qualtrics and conducting all my interviews over Microsoft Teams or by phone depending on the comfort of the participants. 


Natasha Martino  17:51

So if we weren't in the midst of the pandemic, I would have been conducting my interviews in person. However, the virtual methodology ended up being okay as the participants engaged in interviews, were able to participate in a space that was comfortable to them, and not have to worry about commuting to Brantford if they were in another municipality, which many of them were. 

Additionally, one of my research questions is actually based around COVID-19, because I really wanted to understand this unique unprecedented time and how it's impacted the work of bylaw and their roles in general when it comes to homelessness and encampments. It's also important to mention that due to COVID-19, bylaw officers were tasked with enforcing provincial COVID-19 regulations, making this an extremely busy time to reach this population. 

So my data collection was occurring during this busy period for bylaw when they were expected to enforce these COVID-19 regulations. And I do think that this may have influenced my sample size. But that being said, I am definitely content with the data I received and think that regardless, the data I have is very, very valuable and worthwhile.


Alishau Diebold  18:48

And so what are your hopes for the impact of your work?


Natasha Martino  19:09

My research addresses a very substantial gap in the literature. So while there is a tonne of information on policing and homelessness, there is a lack of information on bylaw agents, even though they have an evolving and growing role when it comes to homelessness complaints. So it's also important to note that bylaw officers have less power when compared to police. 

And so the two groups oftentimes cannot be equated. So the literature on policing cannot 100% be generalized to bylaw because they do have differences in capabilities and authority when responding to local complaints. So that said, I really do hope that my work can offer a significant contribution to the literature, and overall increase the discussion about bylaw and their responses to homelessness. 

I hope that my research will start a conversation surrounding all enforcement agents that respond to homelessness, rather than the conventional focus on the police. I think this is incredibly important when understanding how homelessness is dealt with in communities across Ontario, shedding light on the fact that enforcement agents should not be the first responders when dealing with a complaint associated with homelessness. 

Like I mentioned, there's great existing literature focusing on police responses to homelessness, and the issues with this reliance. But the same is not present for bylaw making my research exploratory, timely and important. I also hope that this research will spark a conversation about the need for additional policies for enforcement related responses to homelessness and encampments. As I mentioned, one of my findings thus far is that there is a lack of policies guiding the interactions of bylaw when responding to homelessness and if there are policies that they're not often followed, whether that be due to a lack of resources, officers, or both. So I really do hope that this research starts the conversation about increasing policies for enforcement officers related to homelessness, that are rooted in support rather than enforcement. 


Alishau Diebold  21:03

Is there anything about your research that you feel is important to share? 


Natasha Martino  21:07

Yes, of course. So I do think I've shared many important details about my project, and I don't want to sound like a broken record or anything, but I think it's really important to just reiterate the value of understanding enforcement responses to homelessness in our community. Oftentimes, due to an insufficient investment in prevention and affordable housing, law enforcement agents are tasked with responding to complaints about homelessness. As a result, the criminalization of homelessness occurs, referring to the use of laws and practices that restrict the activities and movements of people experiencing homelessness, with outcomes such as fines and incarceration. As such, those whose poverty is visible, are subject to extra attention by the criminal justice system because of who they are and where they are located. 

Additionally, homeless encampments are on the rise and can often be visible. Encampments are relied upon [by] people in the community for shelter due to an inadequate or non existent shelter system, lack of affordable housing, a sense of community, a desire for privacy, and insufficient policies to end homelessness. However, the visibility of these locations puts people residing in encampments at risk of police intervention and sweeps or quote unquote, "cleanup activities" by local authorities. 

There's often a lot of public pressure to again, quote unquote, "do something about homelessness", resulting in the increased use of law enforcement run responding to complaints associated with homelessness. As such, it's so important to understand the responses of all law enforcement agents, and what this means for the homeless community. It's imperative to figure out ways to better support people experiencing homelessness, and focus our responses in support rather than enforcement. So I just really wanted to reiterate those features of my project, and just again, explain the value of understanding the law enforcement responses to homelessness, whether that be police bylaws, or even private security.


Alishau Diebold  22:57

Can you tell us more about the relationship between police officers and bylaw officers in the context of your research? 


Natasha Martino  23:06

Yes, absolutely. So this has come up a few times in a few different ways. So the first way that I will discuss is the actual physical interaction between bylaw officers and police. So a few of my participants have mentioned calling police for backup if they attend a complaint, and it's a little bit more than they're equipped to handle, or a few other officers have discussed waiting for police before entering an encampment, or if they can't see the encampment, for example, so if the encampment is not visible from say, the road, then some participants have mentioned that they will call the police for quote unquote "backup" just in case it is a little bit more than they can handle once they approach the encampment. 

Now another theme I've also found is that the participants that I've spoken to will often mention that enforcement in general, so enforcement agents, including police and bylaw, should not be responding to homelessness whatsoever. So a few of my participants have directly said, you know, the police don't do a good job, and neither do we, so we should not collectively be responding. 

So I think those are really the two ways the first relying on support from one another when attending a complaint that maybe by law officers cannot handle on their own, whether that be, again due to a lack of training, a lack of staff, a lack of equipment, so to say because bylaw officers also carry a lot less physical objects than police do, if that's needed, which it never should be. And then again, the other side of it just being that law enforcement in general is not equipped to be dealing with complaints that are associated with homelessness and that these responses should be rooted in support whereas the majority of what police and bylaw can offer is enforcement responses. 


Alishau Diebold  25:01

What opportunities are there to explore the renewed role of bylaw officers? 


Natasha Martino  25:07

I think this is a great question. I think the COVID-19 pandemic has provided, obviously a very challenging time, but also a very interesting avenue to explore for young researchers because this, like I said earlier, this is an unprecedented time- this is, these are uncharted waters for research, and really exploring how COVID-19 has impacted different members of the community. So I think it's been really interesting to learn about all of the tasks that bylaw officers are expected to perform.

 So for instance, a few officers have mentioned having to remind people experiencing homelessness about COVID-19 protocols when the absolute last thing on their mind is social distancing, or wearing a mask if their funds sheltered or living in a local encampment; that is not on their priority list, rightfully so. They have other things they need to be dealing with, such as surviving outside in the winter or the summer and things like that. So a lot of the bylaw officers that I've spoken to referenced feeling silly for reminding this population to socially distance, because like I said, that's just not a top priority for them. 

And I think it's just been really interesting to hear the stress coming from bylaw officers in that they have so much on their plate to deal with but again, they're understaffed, they don't have enough resources to be dealing with these things. Again, the lack of training comes in here too. Another interesting thing that's come up to is the public pressure that has now been exacerbated by COVID-19. So a few officers that I've spoken to have talked about how the public is expecting bylaw to do more when it comes to homelessness because of COVID-19. 

So, for instance, there's this fear that community members are going to contract COVID-19 from a person experiencing homelessness because they're not social distancing, and wearing masks, and how a lot of these complaints will come in, rooted in COVID-19, but once a bylaw officer attends, it's actually someone experiencing homelessness. So it's kind of that workaround of complaints rooted in COVID-19.


Alishau Diebold  27:26

Thank you so much for sharing your research with me today. Natasha, it's been so wonderful to learn about your project and hear about the great work that you're doing in the community. Thank you so much. 


Natasha Martino  27:37

And thank you for inviting me to chat today about my research. It was so nice speaking with you and having the ability to share my research with the greater community.


Shawna Reibling  27:47

Thank you Natasha for sharing your research



[jingle plays]


Shawna Reibling  27:58

Please subscribe to Research Chat on your favorite podcast player to hear new episodes. Visit to read a follow up article, show notes, and related links. Research Chat is a partnership between the Office of Research Services, the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, and the Laurier Library. Thank you to everyone who's contributed to the creation of Research Chat. A gratitude list can be found on our webpage.



[jingle fades]