Sudbury park eviction vexes those working to help people experiencing homelessness

Some of Sudbury's most vulnerable residents have one less place to spend the night this week, after they were asked by city bylaw and police officers to leave Memorial Park. And that's left some feeling distressed about the city's chronic housing problems.

'Right now there really aren't many options for housing and for shelter'

Memorial Park in downtown Sudbury, where a group of people experiencing homelessness had been sleeping in tents. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC)

Some of Sudbury's most vulnerable residents have one less place to spend the night this week, after they were asked by city bylaw and police officers to leave the park where they had been sleeping. 

And that's left some feeling distressed about the city's chronic housing problems.

Roughly half-a-dozen people had been camping in Memorial Park downtown until Tuesday afternoon, when officials arrived. One of the city's bylaws states that parks can't be used when they're closed, and also prohibits camping in parks.

The city says it took action "out of concern for the wellbeing of the people living there."

"Over the last week, by-law and community outreach staff have visited the site several times to educate and connect these individuals with resources available to them," the city said in a statement. 

"Additional support continues to be provided via community outreach services, helping to connect those wishing to obtain assistance with the appropriate services. This outreach will continue via various groups, throughout the week."

Abbey Jackson, a downtown harm-reduction worker, called the park eviction "very disappointing."

"Because I think it's widely understood by the city, by the police, by social workers, that right now there really aren't many options for housing and for shelter," Jackson said.

"The shelters we do have are not accessible to everyone. And as we all know, the cost of living is is so high right now that it doesn't leave much for housing, and we don't even have enough housing stock. And the most vulnerable end up in places like a city park and they're denied their right to take shelter — even there."

'Short-sighted and cruel'

Norman Beaucage was living in the park until about a month ago, when he was able to find housing.

"But winter's coming and it's cold, you know. And to have like a couple cardboard boxes around you and a piece of plastic over your head, even if it is in a downtown park, I don't think it's much to ask for, as long as they clean up and pick up after themselves," Beaucage said.

"I tried to exercise that every day, just so it doesn't give people a reason to complain. But they're always going to find something to complain about."

Sudbury's Norman Beaucage stands next to the structure in Memorial Park, where about a half-dozen people had been camping. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC)

The Off The Street Shelter on Larch Street, operated by the CMHA, can accommodate 35 people, and is filled to capacity most nights, says shelter coordinator Pam Lamarche. 

Jackson says accessing a shelter can be "particularly hard for people who use drugs and people who are living with mental illness." 

"What they have to do is make sure that they can sign up for a bed between 12 and 1 p.m. at an announced spot somewhere in the downtown. And if they don't make it there to do that, they don't get a bed that night," Jackson said. 

The CMHA says those who don't sign up for a bed during that time can still access a spot by showing up in the evening, as long as there are beds available. Larmarche says, however, that the shelter typically has to turn away two to three people each night. 

Jackson says she's noticed the number of people sleeping outside is growing — and that's not counting the people who are accessing shelter space. 

"I think the city is being incredibly short-sighted and cruel. And those are the two words that I think describe their behaviour," she said.

'Housing is the solution to homelessness'

The executive director of the Samaritan Centre, which holds space for care services for vulnerable citizens in downtown Sudbury, says she was present when those who were sheltering in the park were asked to leave.

"The police officers that attended, and the bylaw officer as well, were very respectful of the community that were making their home there," Lisa Long said.

"And it was done in a, as respectful and dignified manner, I guess, as it could be. They were just watching as the community members that were living there packed up their stuff."

Even so, she says it was "still quite shocking" to see. 

Several community members and organizations worked together to set up a temporary shelter for the people displaced from the park.

"There was a donation from a local business — air mattresses and pumps to blow them up. So they were fed a couple of meals and [had] a place to stay [for the night]," Long said.

"They didn't all choose to stay. They were worried about their stuff, which was left outside."

Long had been checking on those who had been staying in the park, a couple of times a week. Through her work, she has spent a lot of time thinking about what needs to happen to make things better.

"Homelessness in this city has been a social issue for quite some time. In terms of a solution to homelessness … if you strip everything away, housing is the solution to homelessness. The city needs landlords that are willing to open up their rental properties and offer people ... safe, affordable housing," she said. 

Marie Pollock is an outreach and peer support worker in Sudbury. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC)

Marie Pollock agrees. The outreach and peer support worker says she has had trouble sleeping since the park eviction took place.

"I work for a couple of different agencies and I come with lived experience. I know what it's like to be out here. I know what it's like to deal with and juggle mental health and addictions, one or both. Sometimes these people, depending on situations and all, sometimes they don't feel safe between four walls," she said.

"Some people, they feel more safe outside in the elements because that's been their life for so long, among other different reasons. I'm just so riled up ... It really, really bugs me. I'm really disappointed in the city."

For Beaucage, it's clear that the recent eviction won't solve any underlying problems. Other than being an "eyesore to some people" he doesn't see how those sheltering in the park were "interrupting anything or disturbing anything."

He points to what he considers the futility of the situation.

"Today, they're out back on the street again. So they're just going to find another place."

With files from Sarah MacMillan