Oshawa's move to clear out tent city leaves homeless out in the cold, advocate says

An advocate for the homeless is critical of the city of Oshawa after it moved to clear out a tent city in a downtown park.

The number of homeless is rising in Durham Region, especially in Oshawa, according to a recent report

Brandy Labrecque, right, hugs homeless advocate Christeen Thornton. Labrecque lived in the tent city that was recently cleared out by the city of Oshawa. (Yan Jun Li/CBC)

Christeen Thornton looks around a large clearing in a densely forested area of Rotary Park in downtown Oshawa.

Until recently it was a tent city littered with clothing and used needles, with some areas looking like a "laundry room gone wild," according to Thornton, a local homeless advocate and founder of Direct Intervention Reaching Everyone (DIRE).

But for many of the city's homeless, it was home.

Workers recently finished clearing it out, and the people who lived in the camp "just moved on," explained Oshawa's mayor, John Henry, in an email to CBC Toronto.

"It's very upsetting," Thornton said, surveying a massive structure she said used to be an "apartment" with separate rooms created by draping tarps over trees that were chopped down using dollar store hatchets.

Christeen Thornton, a homeless advocate, says the tent city in downtown Oshawa served as a safety net for many of the people there. (Yan Jun Li/CBC)

She says she understands why the city flagged the area as a problem, with garbage sometimes getting out of control, and dog walkers and families using the trails for recreation. But she says many of the people living there had nowhere else to go.

"It took them years — some of them — to make these little homes, and if that's all they have it seems like bullying to me to sort of snatch that away from them."

Oshawa homeless population growing

The problem of homelessness is growing in Durham Region, and particularly in Oshawa, where 74 per cent of the region's unsheltered population is living, according to a joint report from the Community Development Council and Durham Mental Health Services, which came out last year.

This makeshift city, with dozens of residents ranging in age from 17 to 70, was only one of several — some of which still exist but are farther out from the centre of town.

Spots in the tent city in Oshawa, which was recently cleared out by the city, looked like a 'laundry room gone wild,' says advocate Christeen Thornton. But, she says, the space provided a much-needed community for the homeless. (Supplied by Christeen Thornton)

"The real problem is the opioid crisis, the mental health crisis and the lack of affordable housing," Henry wrote, adding those who have been displaced are getting the help they need from "the appropriate agencies."

"The success of that is shown by the ability to clean up the areas affected in a respectful, responsible manner and at the same time, getting those involved connected to the right resources," he continued.

However, Thornton — who has routinely visited the camp for the last two months with care packages of food, blankets and toiletries — believes the mass exodus has set back the work she is trying to do.

"A lot of them don't feel like they deserve help, so that was something we were working on — just building them up," she said. "And then they come in and do this ... the most stigmatizing thing that anything could happen to a person."

Many of the homeless people living in the tent city were drug users, says Thornton, which is why she brought naloxone kits with her on her visits.

At the beginning of June, she counted 30 needles lying on the ground — a hazard to anyone who may accidentally step on one. One of the main resources DIRE provides are canisters used to dispose of used needles. On her next visit, all the needles were cleaned up.

"That shows that harm reduction works," she said.

'Give us a break,' says homeless woman

Brandy Labrecque used to live in the tent city, but since the raid she's been forced to move her camp almost every single morning, often with bylaw officers watching.

"They sit here until we're done," Labrecque tells CBC Toronto, bursting into tears.

People were living in tents like these set up in a clearing in Rotary Park. (Supplied by Christeen Thornton)

"Not all of us are bad, not all of us are drug users — give us a break," she said. "It would be great if they could get some homes geared to our income."

Thornton asks if she can give Labrecque a hug.

"We have to step back and use an open mind and look at what's really going on if you really want to solve the problem," Thornton said.

"This is not solving a problem."

With files from Natalie Nanowski


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