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Patty Hajdu is executive directer of a long-time homeless refuge in Thunder Bay called Shelter House. (Joshua Lynn/CBC)

A Thunder Bay police effort to clear campsites where homeless people congregate is drawing strong reaction from the homeless and from the people who try to help them.

The executive director of Shelter House, Patty Hajdu, said the city needs to find a better approach to dealing with what is a serious problem.

One formerly-homeless woman, Margaret, knows what it's like to have her possessions cleared away by police.

"Like when somebody goes into your home and robs you," she said. (CBC News has agreed to withhold her last name.)

"We're not all messy. We try to clean up," she said.

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A Thunder Bay homeless woman named Margaret has been known to sleep under this porch. It's since been boarded up to prevent it from happening again. (Joshua Lynn/CBC)

Margaret said she was homeless for seven and a half years in Thunder Bay, and is currently in the managed-alcohol program at Shelter House.

Margaret emphasized that these camps are important to homeless people.

"That's where you know people are going to be. If you're by yourself [you can check these spots]. Eventually you run into the whole crowd that's huddling together, and, you know, keep each other warm.

"Some people have food, [and] you share the food — even extra socks in a backpack. If someone doesn't have socks you give them socks — just help each other out here," Margaret said.

Hajdu understands how Margaret feels.

"As bedraggled as those belongings look, they are still belongings that are often the only things that people own."

Hajdu said she knows police are doing their best to deal with a complex social problem, but she thinks the community as a whole needs to go back to the drawing board.

"We're talking about human beings that are really struggling. Surely we must have a better response than just cleaning up and hoping that people move along," she said.

Thunder Bay Police Const. Julie Tilbury agrees the clean-ups aren't ideal, but says police have to do something.

"We're just trying to do what we can to deter unwanted behaviour in those areas."

"We're just trying to clean up those areas so it makes it jut a little bit less inviting for people to come and just hang out there, because we do know a lot of alcohol is being consumed, and we're just trying to minimize that activity," Tilbury said.

"If we just keep walking by these [site], and knowing it's going on here, we're not helping the problem at all."

Despite her concerns, Hajdu said she understands the perspective of police and the city "in terms of the perceived safety risk that it might present to other citizens and the state of the environment and the mess that it creates." 

Tilbury said issues like homelessness and severe alcohol addiction are too big for police to handle on their own, and they want to work with the community to find solutions.