TORONTO — Tensions flared at a homeless encampment in Toronto on Wednesday as city officials, flanked by dozens of police officers, moved in to clear the site.
Residents and their supporters shouted at police, who in turn threatened many with arrest. At least three activists were handcuffed and three dwellings were dismantled outside Lamport Stadium before officials moved out, leaving about two dozen living structures in place.
Scottie Bailey Kelly was among those living at the encampment who did not want to leave when ordered to do so on Wednesday.
"This is freedom, there is love here," said Bailey Kelly, who has lived at the site for four months. "I'm going to miss my new friends here. I don't have family, they've become my family."
A few dozen people have been living in tents and home-built shelters outside Lamport Stadium since the pandemic began in March 2020. The site is one of dozens that popped up throughout the city after many homeless individuals left shelters for fear of catching COVID-19.
The city has said that encampments aren't safe and has been working to move those living at the sites into hotel rooms.
Last week, the city posted notices of trespass at the Lamport Stadium encampment warning those living there that they could be subject to removal and face a $10,000 fine if convicted. Camping in city parks is not permitted.
Several people at the site accepted the city's offer on Wednesday to shift to a hotel but were only allowed to bring two bags belongings with them. There are also rules they need to adhere to at the hotels, which are a deal breaker for some.
By mid-afternoon, about a hundred activists showed up at the site and formed a ring around the tents of those who didn't want to leave.
Brian Cleary, who lived at the encampment last year before finding a rare rent-geared-to-income apartment in city housing, showed up to support friends who still want to live at the site.
"They're criminalizing everyone living here, this is scary and traumatizing and just absolutely unnecessary," he said.
Cleary said he spent several months living in one of the hotels in city's northwest corner. He said he hated it.
"I had to walk a kilometre to get groceries, there's just nothing around, let alone any support services," he said.
Dozens of police officers, city security officers, and eight police horses were on hand to enforce the clearing outside Lamport Stadium. It took police and the city several hours to clear one tent and two small wooden shelters.
There were heated arguments and physical confrontations when activists and some encampment residents tried to block a backhoe from taking away one of the small shelters, which led to several activists being arrested.
The crowd then moved to the other side of the stadium where they surrounded the remaining tents and wooden shelters.
Brad Ross, the city's spokesman, said officials left the site later Wednesday afternoon, allowing some dwellings to remain for the moment "for the safety of all concerned."
"Living outside has a significant, negative impact on overall health and the well-being of people," Ross said, noting a serious fire at an encampment several months earlier.
"By coming inside to a shelter, hotel or into supportive housing, people are provided with a number of supports, including a housing worker, meals, laundry, showers, harm reduction and medical assistance."
Toronto Mayor John Tory said the encampments won't be around much longer and city staff will continue to try to persuade people to move inside.
"The notion that we're going to leave encampments there indefinitely, that are unsafe, unhealthy and illegal in public parks and public spaces is just not something that we're going to be able to do," he said.
The city has leased or bought dozens of hotels, motels and other buildings in an effort to reduce the number of people in shelters, most of which are congregate living spaces and vulnerable to large COVID-19 outbreaks.
At the Lamport Stadium encampment, Bailey Kelly smiled after officers left for the day.
"It's a good day," he said. "We gotta get the mayor down here to show him we're good people and to figure out a solution for all of us."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2021.
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press