TORONTO — Residents of a homeless encampment and a large crowd of supporters clashed with police at a Toronto park on Tuesday as authorities moved in to clear the site.
The operation at Trinity Bellwoods Park – which involved dozens of police officers, municipal workers and private security guards – saw hundreds show up in support of the approximately two dozen individuals the city was trying to evict.
The situation got heated after authorities erected a metal fence around dozens of makeshift dwellings that have been at the park for months.
"Let them out, let them out," the crowd chanted at one point as a few pulled down a portion of the fence around noon.
Dozens of protesters rushed the gap, joining others inside the perimeter who had surrounded the dwellings of residents who didn't want to leave.
Half a dozen police horses then moved in, allowing officers to put the fence back up. By midafternoon, the crowd outside the fence had swelled and about 50 police officers in riot gear stood nearby.
Police later moved in to clear one set of makeshift dwellings in the park's north end. Police drones buzzed overhead all day.
Susan Gibson, who has been living in the encampment for 10 months, said she was shocked at the situation.
"It's insane," she said. "All this for a few people living here."
The city had issued trespass notices to about 25 people living in the two main encampment sites at the park on June 12, warning they could be evicted and face a $10,000 fine.
Gibson said she did not want to take the city's offer of a spot in a shelter or a hotel because she feels much safer from violence and the spread of COVID-19 when living outdoors.
"This is a waste of taxpayer money and it's divisive when we should be helping people," she said, adding that she didn't know where she'd go if she was forced out.
"I’d like to get into affordable housing, but it’s very difficult."
Jimmy Pudjunas spent the morning trying to pack up his belongings from his large tent and wooden structure shelter. He, too, said he doesn't want to live at a shelter due to the threat of violence.
"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. He said he has mental health and addiction issues but found peace at the park.
A 120-year-old Heintzman piano sat among his belongings as he gathered his possessions.
"They say you can't live here, not that you can’t live, so I’m gonna go find a spot under the bridge," he said. "Not sure what to do about the piano though."
Tony Morin, another encampment resident, said he had lived at the park for about a month.
"I'm just gonna go set up a tent at a different spot," he said.
Hundreds fled Toronto's homeless shelters for fear of contracting COVID-19 when the pandemic hit and dozens of encampments popped up throughout the city.
Recent data obtained by The Canadian Press also shows a significant rise in violent incidents in Toronto's shelter system over the last five years.
The city maintains the shelter system is safe and has said it will eventually clear the homeless encampments, which it says are unsafe. City council also recently passed a motion to end encampments.
In addition to the action at Trinity Bellwoods, the city has also issued trespass notices to residents at three other encampments.
Last month, the city and police halted an encampment clearing at Lamport Stadium after a standoff with homeless residents and their supporters.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 22, 2021.
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press