Toronto's promise for permanent housing ends standoff in Trinity Bellwoods park, advocate says
Encampment residents cite health reasons, threats of violence among reasons not to move to shelters
The City of Toronto has promised permanent housing to residents staying in an encampment at Trinity Bellwoods Park, according to Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto.
As a result, he told CBC News, supporters of the 20 to 25 people estimated to be living in the park are now being asked to leave.
Greg Cook, outreach worker with Sanctuary says a deal was reached to provide encampment residents with permanent housing and supporters are being asked to leave the park. <a href="https://t.co/XunB52aUik">pic.twitter.com/XunB52aUik</a>—@LindaWardCBC
Supporters arrived Tuesday at the park in anticipation of the city's plans to clear it out and move people into temporary shelters. The agreement brings to an end a confrontation between encampment supporters and dozens of police, including some mounted units.
At one point, advocates supporting people in the encampment formed a human chain around the structures the city wants taken down.
Cook said people are getting "their belongings packed away," but he didn't know how soon the people still in the encampment would be moving.
According to a police release, one person was arrested and charged with assaulting a peace officer, a second person was arrested and charged with assault with a weapon, and a third person was arrested and charged with two counts of weapons dangerous.
"I'm warning you, if you try to evict me from a public space on unceded territory then I will take severe legal action against the city," Susan Gibson, who is currently living in the encampment, told a bylaw officer earlier in the day.
Large police presence gathering on the west side gate of Trinity Bellwoods. <a href="https://twitter.com/CBCToronto?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@CBCToronto</a> <a href="https://t.co/vN2HszsKQx">pic.twitter.com/vN2HszsKQx</a>—@DaleManucdoc
Tuesday's police-backed removal attempt was the latest clash between the city and supporters of people experiencing homelessness, some of whom fled the shelter system because of COVID-19 fears.
Gibson and other residents of the encampment were previously served with formal trespass notices on June 12, along with residents of three other major encampments in Moss Park and Alexandra Park, and at Lamport Stadium.
'I don't see any better option'
Speaking to reporters, an audibly frustrated Mayor John Tory said, "The greatest favour I think we can actually do for the people experiencing homelessness… is to have them come indoors to a safe place where they can get the kind of support they need."
However, some who Tory spoke about, strongly disagree with the mayor's approach.
The city said those currently living in Trinity Bellwoods are being "offered safe, indoor space, with access to meals, showers and laundry, harm reduction, physical and mental health supports, and a housing work."
But Gibson contested the idea that moving into temporary shelters would be safer, saying she was "disturbed, ashamed" by the city's approach.
"There really is no better option [than public parks] until we can get affordable permanent housing," she told CBC News.
WATCH | CBC News captures exchange between encampment resident and city worker at Trinity Bellwoods Park:
Gibson, 65, said she's working with a housing support worker to get permanent housing but that the process takes time — especially on a limited income. In the interim, she's living at Trinity Bellwoods.
"I intend to stay here until I can get into permanent housing. I don't see any better option," she said.
When a city official tried to encourage Gibson to leave for a shelter, she told him that she couldn't for health reasons. She questioned who she was harming in the park. When the official told her the park was for everyone, Gibson agreed.
"Exactly," she said.
More than 100 'fire events' at encampments this year: city
Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Toronto, said it's one thing for the city council to pass a motion advocating for zero encampments, but making it a reality is a little more complicated
"I'm pretty angry and I'm pretty disappointed. I'm also not surprised," she said. "They certainly haven't offered housing," she said. "The city needs to step up."
ETF is assembling to the north of the park. <a href="https://t.co/X03zRj36GU">pic.twitter.com/X03zRj36GU</a>—@LindaWardCBC
Advocates and other residents who support those living in the encampment began to arrive at the park shortly after police and security guards. They linked arms around some of the tents and structures to prevent city officials from speaking with those inside.
In its news release, the city said that the outdoor encampment presents health and safety risks for those living there, particularly with regard to fires.
There have been 114 "fire events" in encampments so far this year, according to the city.
"In 2020, Toronto Fire Services responded to 253 fires in encampments — a 247 per cent increase over the same period in 2019," the city said.
"Since 2010, seven people have lost their lives as a result of fires in encampments in Toronto."
That's not a good enough reason to evict people, said Lam.
Fears over safety at shelters, threats of violence
"Fires happen in homes, we don't tell people to stop cooking," she said. "Fires happen with Christmas trees and we don't ban Christmas trees."
Lam said it's clear that shelters are not safe, regardless of the city's reassurances.
Lam also noted that there was a fire in one of the hotels the city turned into a shelter earlier this year. Jennifer Jewell, who was staying in the shelter at that time, told CBC News in February about being trapped on the 15th floor when shelter staff evacuated during the fire.
Jewell, who is disabled and uses a walker, said she was forced to call 911 on her own after it became apparent she had been left behind.
"I thought I was going to die," she told CBC News. "I'm still waking up in the middle of the night dreaming that I did burn to death."
At Trinity Bellwoods Park, Jimmy Pudjunas said he would not take the city's offer to move into a shelter because of the threat of violence.
However, he spent the morning trying to pack up his belongings from his sprawling tent and wooden structure shelter.
"I'm trying to be compliant," he said. "I'm leaving but I don't know where I'm going."
Pudjunas has lived in the park since last September. "They say you can't live here, not that you can't live, so I'm going to find a spot under the bridge," he said.
In an emailed statement, city spokesperson Brad Ross said, "We want this to be peaceful above all else."
Shortly before 1 p.m. on Tuesday, residents and their supporters were still standing by their encampments. Security has surrounded the area and nobody is being allowed in.
Supporters surround a dwelling as officials continue to serve notice. They’re being given 2-3 hours to leave <a href="https://t.co/Gmy8EQZzgc">pic.twitter.com/Gmy8EQZzgc</a>—@LindaWardCBC
- An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified officers at the park in tactical gear as members of Emergency Response Team. In fact, they are members of the Public Safety Response Team.Jun 22, 2021 4:06 PM ET
With files from Linda Ward, Lucas Powers, and The Canadian Press