Top regional official apologizes for encampment eviction, commits to review process

The Region of Waterloo's CAO Bruce Lauckner has apologized to people impacted after people were evicted from an encampment in Kitchener on Friday. The apology comes after the eviction sparked public outrage and a call for better supports to tackle homelessness.

Encampment that sheltered several people was cleared on Friday

Region of Waterloo CAO Bruce Lauckner, top right corner, addressed regional councillors in a meeting on Monday after staff cleared an encampment in Kitchener on Friday. He said the way the approach taken on Friday was wrong. (Region of Waterloo/YouTube)

There's no question that Waterloo region's approach to clearing an occupied encampment in Kitchener on Friday was wrong, a municipal official says.

During a regional council meeting on Monday, the region's chief administrative officer (CAO) Bruce Lauckner apologized to people impacted by the eviction.

"Our residents deserve to be treated with respect and dignity and on Friday, we failed to do that … Yes, we work to support individuals and to try to connect them to housing and other supports. That being said, there's no question that our approach on Friday was wrong," he said.

"As CAO, I take full accountability. This is not the outcome that anyone wanted or deserved. We need to do better and we will do better. I want to express my deep apologies to the residents harmed by our actions."

The apology comes after the eviction, that involved heavy equipment and police officers on site, sparked public outrage and a call for better supports to tackle homelessness. Advocates gathered in protest at the site of the encampment on Sunday.

On Monday, Lauckner said the region is reviewing the process that led to the eviction and plans on implementing necessary changes. He said that work will start in December.

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Politicians speak out

Several politicians voiced their shock and disappointment in what transpired, including Coun. Sean Strickland.

"I'm just going to say that this was a complete operational and governance breakdown of a disproportionate amount of force used on a vulnerable population by using a front-end loader," Strickland said, and he questioned how the operation was approved without council's knowledge.

He said the process must be reviewed to ensure appropriate approvals from within the organization and council.

Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic, who also serves as a regional councillor, expressed his shock, but thanked regional officials for owning up to their actions.

"I think part of leadership at any time is we often get praise when things go well, but we also need to own it when we need to do better. And today, I think collectively as an organization and as a council, we're saying we need to do better," said Vrbanovic.

"There's a report that will come forward that is going to indicate how that happens," he added.

Watch the full discussion at a regional council meeting on Monday:

Timeline of events

Rod Regier, the region's commissioner of planning, development and legislative services, provided a detailed timeline of events leading up to Friday. It's the first time the region has cleared an occupied site.

It started with regional staff receiving community complaints related to the encampment. People said they were concerned the encampment was too close to a bus shelter and high school and that the space contained "exposed sharps," Regier said.

As a result of these complaints, staff from the region's licensing and enforcement division visited the site that was established in late September on region-owned property.

Regier said regional staff from the housing department were notified and asked to work with outreach services to connect people at the site with support. He said there was capacity at local shelters to take in the individuals, if that was what they chose.

One week before the site was evacuated, the City of Kitchener bylaw enforcement department was told regional staff planned on issuing a notice of trespassing. The relevant bylaw covers the "conduct of persons on regional property."

People lined up the corner of Charles Street East and Stirling Avenue South on Sunday, where the encampment was located, to protest the eviction of people who were living there. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Five days later, on Nov. 24, that notice was issued. People seeking shelter at the site were told they had two days to pack up and leave.

"The notice was distributed by hand, posted directly onto each of the three tents, as well as the nearby bus shelter and was provided to social agencies in the area, including the House of Friendship and the Ray of Hope," Regier said.

When staff arrived Friday morning, they noticed several people had already left. Two remained and said they did not plan on leaving the site. That's when police were notified and officers arrived at the site and were there for several hours.

Due to concerns around "unsanitary conditions," clean-up crews used heavy equipment, such as a front-end loader, to remove the leftover belongings. 

"While the decision to remove belongings with heavy equipment was made to protect the health and safety of staff and community, the manner in which this was carried out does not reflect the dignity of those living at the encampment," Regier told regional councillors.

"We will modify our process to ensure residents and their belongings are treated with respect and dignity," he added.

Regional officials could not directly answer questions about the well-being and whereabouts of the people who were living at the encampment. Staff said they have connected with outreach services to learn more information.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo spoke to a parent of one individual who was staying at the encampment who said the individual is now at A Better Tent City, a community made up of tents and cabins as an alternative to the shelter system.