Toronto mayor defends homeless encampment clearing amid criticism

·4 min read

Toronto's mayor defended the forceful clearing of a homeless encampment at a downtown park as the city and police were criticized for their handling of the operation.

John Tory said Wednesday there would be a review of what took place at Trinity Bellwoods Park, where more than a hundred police officers, city workers and private security guards evicted approximately 20 homeless individuals who had been living in makeshift dwellings at the site.

Tory said the large police presence was needed to keep municipal workers safe.

"We can't just allow unsafe, unhealthy, illegal encampments to remain in public parks indefinitely, and that's the position taken by the city, publicly and transparently," Tory said. "But our overriding sense of compassion for the people, and wanting to help them remains our top priority."

The city issued trespass noticed to those living in four large homeless encampments on June 12, warning them they could be removed and fined up to $10,000 if convicted.

Authorities moved in to clear the encampment at Trinity Bellwoods at dawn on Tuesday. The operation lasted more than 12 hours, involved about 40 riot squad officers, a half-dozen police horses and police drones.

Clashes broke out between police and those advocating for encampment residents, particularly when a fence was set up around the dwellings. Officers in riot gear eventually moved in to methodically clear two sites at the encampment, forcing everyone out.

By the end of the day, 12 encampment residents had accepted spots inside a hotel and nine left on their own, the city said. Two more accepted referrals to indoor accommodations Wednesday, it said.

The scale of the operation at Trinity Bellwoods, and the use of force, drew criticism from supporters of the homeless community, among others.

Elizabeth Harrison, a nurse with Inner City Health Associates who has been caring for encampment residents over the last year, said she was concerned for the mental and physical health of those who used to live at the park.

"It's so sad and so unnecessary," she said of the encampment clearing.

Harrison was among those at the park on Tuesday and spent part of her time frantically scribbling her number on residents' arms in an effort to maintain communication once they left. She said several were distressed.

"It was unreasonable, violent and cruel," Harrison said. "The idea that this is for health and safety is just so disingenuous — how can you think a wall of police is any sort of health intervention?"

Many living in the park said they did not want to return to living in shelters over safety concerns.

Recent data obtained by The Canadian Press 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, while encampments are not.

Ten encampment residents The Canadian Press spoke said they lived with mental health afflictions. Some said they had addiction issues.

"I'm so scared," Susan Gibson said Tuesday as she looked at a large group of police officers set to march into the site.

"This isn't how you treat people," Jimmy Pudjunas said as he packed his belongings.

Brian Cleary, who previously lived in encampments but had found a rare rent-geared-to-income permanent home, said he was with friends who lived at Trinity Bellwoods when police moved in to clear the north site of the encampment.

Police spread into a line and began a slow march, eventually forcing everyone to the fence and then outside the area, he said.

"We were absolutely terrorized," Cleary said. "It was absolute brutality — you have to go along and risk violent confrontation and I don't think anybody had any appetite for that."

Toronto police said the operation was led by the city and officers were there to "provide assistance if requested throughout the day and to ensure public safety of the area."

Police said they increased their numbers when supporters began to turn up at the park.

"Protestors outnumbered encampment residents, creating an increasingly unstable and unsafe environment for them and for city staff," police said. "Throughout the day, when requested to do so, our officers responded with the least amount of force necessary."

Coun. Joe Cressy, who has three homeless encampments in his ward, said he was talking with other councilors to figure out a way to avoid similar forced evictions.

"Excessive displays of enforcement, like yesterday, erodes trust in the city and within the community," Cressy said. "And that erosion of trust in turn impacts our ability to help end chronic homelessness."

He said there is understandably little trust between the homeless, their supporters and the city, adding that he hoped to put together a collaborative group to figure out how to find affordable permanent housing.

"What we witnessed in Trinity Bellwoods is not a way to go forward," he said.

— With files from Chris Young

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2021.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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