Advocates push for better response to homeless encampments after violence at Lamport Stadium

·5 min read
Demonstrators attempting to topple a fence are pepper sprayed by Toronto police officers enforcing an eviction order at an encampment at Lamport Stadium park on July 21, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Demonstrators attempting to topple a fence are pepper sprayed by Toronto police officers enforcing an eviction order at an encampment at Lamport Stadium park on July 21, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

Aliya Pabani is just one of many people who think there has to be a better way to handle Toronto's homeless encampments than the mayhem that broke out at Lamport Stadium park on Wednesday.

That's partly because Pabani, a volunteer with a group called Encampment Support Network Toronto, was right in the middle of it — she was pepper sprayed while several other demonstrators were hurt as police and the city forcibly cleared the site.

"People got massive injuries," Pabani said. "They were punching people … putting knees on people's necks. It was brutal."

Toronto police arrested 26 people Wednesday while enforcing a notice of trespass the city issued to several large encampments last month, including one at Trinity Bellwoods and another at Alexandra Park. As those notices were not heeded, the city said it asked police to enforce them.

Volunteer calls it 'a disgusting display of force'

The result was "a disgusting display of force," said Pabani, who added that she suffered bruises while others needed stitches.

For their part, police said they made repeated attempts to engage with encampment residents and protesters, and to explain they were required under the law to leave.

Darek Zdzienicki/CBC
Darek Zdzienicki/CBC

"These efforts were largely ignored and the crowds became confrontational and hostile," Toronto police spokesperson Connie Osborne said in an email to CBC News, adding that officers responded "proportionately and using minimal force."

The city said there were 11 unhoused people at the park, two of which accepted referrals to a shelter or hotel program, five already had a space in the shelter system, three left on their own accord, and one person turned down an offer for permanent housing.

But advocates are wondering if there is a better solution to house and help those experiencing homelessness.

Benjamin Ries, a supervising lawyer for housing law at the University of Toronto's Downtown Legal Services clinic, is one of them.

"Anytime you see that kind of violence and show of force inflicted on people who really are just fighting for their lives and the lives of their friends and fellow community members, it's really shocking," he said.

Darek Zdzienicki/CBC
Darek Zdzienicki/CBC

But he's not surprised, given that police and the city used the same tactics at Trinity-Bellwoods and Alexandra Park.

"Every time an encampment pops up ... with enough bodies, enough cops, enough riot gear, enough weaponry, and enough just physical grabbing of people — the city gets its way," Ries said, adding the city's recent actions amount to a "child-like, I wanna kick my jammies off and get this over with right now" approach.

"It's immature to me," he said. "I think it's disappointing not only for law enforcement but also for our political leaders, that when they see the scale of a problem like affordable housing, the solution is to just sweep it somewhere else."

'A Better Tent City' proving popular in Kitchener

A solution might be available.

In Kitchener, Jeff Willmer has co-founded and volunteers at A Better Tent City, a social development centre for unhoused people who either cannot or will not use the traditional shelter system.

"A Better Tent City is a solution to a problem that reoccurs in cities all across Canada," Willmer said. "Our idea was, 'Let's create a space where each of those people can have their own house.'"

For the past 15 months, volunteers have provided an eight-foot-by-10-foot cabin with two windows, a door, electricity, and a bed, with 50 people living in 39 cabins on a plot of industrial land owned by co-founder Ron Doyle.

"We didn't ask for the city's permission, we just went ahead and did it," Willmer said.

They sought city support as the cabins became more popular. The City of Kitchener responded by waiving enforcement of zoning bylaws.

Doyle died in March and the lot is being sold. Kitchener has temporarily made a piece of land available, and the organization will use it for a few months while looking for another site.

Submitted by Jeff Willmer
Submitted by Jeff Willmer

The initiative is financed by community donations and a shelter allowance. It has a staff of three.

"It's not just housing, it's a community," Willmer said.

Regarding the encampments in Toronto, Willmer's not surprised, since he saw the same thing in Kitchener.

"Encampments would pop up … and police and bylaw enforcement would be called in to move them along," he said.

"I think the challenge is the people who live at A Better Tent City, they are hard to house," Willmer said. "They do live with mental illness, many of them, and/or drug addiction, most of them. If they were given a place of their own, they would not survive long there. They're likely to be evicted and back on the street."

But as the tent city's been active for more than a year, Willmer believes that it's a sign that something about it is working.

'Home, inside, with supports' is city's priority

When asked about initiatives like the one in Kitchener, city spokesperson Brad Ross said Toronto already has safe indoor accommodations for unhoused people.

"A home, inside, with supports is the city's priority for those experiencing homelessness," he said in an email to CBC News.

He said there are 6,000 spaces in Toronto's shelter system, and that the city does everything it can to persuade unhoused people to leave the encampments because the risk of contracting COVID-19 there is high, and there's also the risk of fires.

"When engagement is not effective at encouraging occupants to come inside over a prolonged period of time, the city will enforce park encampment trespass notices as a last resort."

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