Toronto police say nine people were arrested as the City moved in Tuesday to start evicting those living at a homeless encampment at Alexandra Park in the area of Dundas and Bathurst streets, enforcing trespass notices issued June 12.
“Officers continue to provide support to City of Toronto staff and enforce the law when called upon to do so. Anyone refusing to leave the park, can be arrested/charged,” police said in a tweet.
“The Toronto Police Service will be present to ensure the safety of encampment occupants, City workers and the public,” the City said in a release.
City spokesperson Brad Ross added that police were “only there as support if required and if asked by the city to enable staff on the scene to do their jobs by helping folks pack up and leave the park.”
Police said either they or City of Toronto corporate security arrested seven people for ‘trespass to property.’ Six of them were not encampment residents. Two were issued tickets and released while others were released with no tickets or charges.
Police identified the seventh person as Jesse Allan-Cornelius, 31, who was staying at the park. He had an outstanding arrest warrant against him and he is being held for a show cause hearing.
One person, who was not a park resident, was arrested for public intoxication and police say he will be released.
Another person was “investigated during the other two arrests and an outstanding warrant was discovered. They were arrested and released on scene,” police said. She has been identified as Joanna Corbett, 37, who was staying at the park.
Ross said a photographer from the Canadian Press who was inside the area fenced in by city crews was among those arrested.
“He was asked to leave on multiple occasions and refused to leave and so corporate security did make an arrest in order to lawfully remove the photographer. Once he was outside the fenced area, he was released without a charge, without a ticket,” said Ross.
There were more than 60 structures at the park and the city said up to 35 homeless people living there were offered safe, indoor space with access to meals, showers, physical and mental health supports and a housing worker.
Ross says 11 people accepted the offer to move to a hotel or shelter space and 10 others left the park of their own accord. He said 175 spaces are available currently for anyone living outside.
Park residents were allowed to take two bags of belongings with them. All other belongings were to be collected and stored for up to 30 days, to be picked up at a later date.
The City said the park will be closed Tuesday to allow staff to speak with those living at the encampment.
Ross said crews will also begin removing debris and restoring the grounds so that the park can be made available to the public once again.
“We had to cancel a summer camp program at Alexandra Park this summer because of the encampment and the inability to utilize the park as designed,” said Ross.
Advocates for the park residents set up a small rally in the area to protest the evictions and show their support.
Diana Chan McNally, training and engagement coordinator for the Toronto Drop-In Network, says they received word that the city would be clearing the park Tuesday, but they were unable to stop it.
“In lieu of actually being able to stop the city from basically forcibly evicting people from their own homes, we decided to have a counter-demonstration down here to give space for the people living in the park to tell their stories and say their piece,” she told CityNews.
Activist and author Desmond Cole took to the stage to show his support and invite people up to speak. He says city workers made a “bogus offer of housing” to park residents, followed by trespass notices 15 minutes later.
“The plan was obviously to pretend to offer people housing and then…to say if you are not out of here in 15 minutes, you are breaking the law,” he told CityNews. “It’s just another shameless display of the criminalization of poverty in the city and more of Mayor Tory’s attempt to hide poverty instead of dealing with it as he’s supposed to.”
Chan McNally adds that while the program she works for is city-funded, she does not agree with their actions in regards to unhoused park residents.
“My work…is really about ensuring that folks experiencing homelessness have the supports that they need to stay well and be well,” she said. “What I’m seeing instead is violence, harm being enacted against people — which is completely counterintuitive to the work that I do with drop-ins across the city of Toronto.”
She says the evictions will only cause people to be displaced to other areas outdoors and using a “para-military response” does not solve homelessness.
She and several other organizations had proposed a human-rights approach to the issue which would involve consulting unhoused people about their safety concerns when going into shelters.
She says currently, the rules, regulations and available supports in the shelter system are not geared toward what people actually need and are not based on meaningful input from shelter users.
“People who are entering a shelter…they’re not prisoners,” she said. “So why are they denied the right to have any kind of input and control over our government services?”
“If people feel unsafe to go into shelters, they’re not going to stay there. They’re going to end up back outside. It just doesn’t make sense – the approach that we’re seeing right now,” she added.
Cole echoed Chan McNally’s sentiments, saying there is no single, easy solution, “but this isn’t it.”
“The answer is not the criminalization of homelessness,” he said. “The criminalization of people who have nowhere else to go, who don’t want to be in a city hotel where somebody comes and opens the door to do a bed-check at two in the morning, who don’t want to be in a crowded shelter with a COVID outbreak.”
Cole said these are complex and long-standing problems that require equally well thought out solutions, “but first we have to agree that this policing BS is wrong.”
Emergency crews have responded to 146 service calls to Alexandra Park so far this year.
Encampments have popped up throughout the pandemic as more shelter-users take to the streets instead, citing safety concerns and COVID outbreaks in shelters.
The city says the high risk of fires at encampments across the city has been an increasing concern. One person died after a fire broke out at an encampment near Adelaide and Parliament streets in February. Since 2010, seven people died after fires broke out at various sites.
City officials said there have been 130 fire events in encampments so far this year, including two in the past week. Last year, firefighters responded to 253 fires in encampments.
In June, three people were charged after confrontations between police and protesters as City crews evicted those living in encampments at Trinity Bellwoods Park.
Back in May, a violent confrontation erupted as the City dismantled a homeless encampment at Lamport Stadium near King Street West and Dufferin Street. Three police officers suffered minor injuries and one man was charged with assaulting an officer.
The City is in the midst of a massive program to move as many people as it can out of congregate living situations such as shelters into hotel rooms and apartments.