Several arrested, tactical units mobilize as Toronto evicts encampment residents from Trinity Bellwoods park

Toronto police say they have arrested several protestors as city crews backed by police moved to evict people experiencing homelessness from an encampment at Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods park on Tuesday.

According a police tweet, one person was arrested for assaulting a peace officer and a second person was arrested for assault with a weapon. Police have not yet released more information.

Police officers on horses are seen as occupants and supporters of a homeless encampment await their possible eviction by police, after workers enclosed the area with a fence, at Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto on June 22, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Shortly after 2 p.m., CBC reporters on scene noted the arrival of dozens of members of the Toronto Police Service’s Public Safety Response Team. Mounted units are also on scene. Meanwhile, advocates supporting people in the encampment formed a human chain around the structures the city wants to take down.

The conflict comes after a handful of unhoused people in an encampment in the park agreed to move into temporary shelters, according to the city. The majority are believed to be staying put. 

“I’m warning you, if you try to evict me from a public space on unceded territory then I will take severe legal action against the city,” Susan Gibson, who is currently living in the encampment, told a bylaw officer.

Tuesday’s police-backed removal attempt is the latest clash between the city and supporters of people experiencing homelessness, some of whom fled the shelter system because of COVID-19 fears.

Gibson and other residents of the encampment were previously served with formal trespass notices on June 12, along with residents of three other major encampments in Moss Park and Alexandra Park, and at Lamport Stadium. 

‘I don’t see any better option’

Speaking to reporters, an audibly frustrated Mayor John Tory said, “The greatest favour I think we can actually do for the people experiencing homelessness… is to have them come indoors to a safe place where they can get the kind of support they need.”

However, some who Tory spoke about, strongly disagree with the mayor’s approach.

The city said those currently living in Trinity Bellwoods are being “offered safe, indoor space, with access to meals, showers and laundry, harm reduction, physical and mental health supports, and a housing work.”

But Gibson contested the idea that moving into temporary shelters would be safer, saying she was “disturbed, ashamed” by the city’s approach.

“There really is no better option [than public parks] until we can get affordable permanent housing,” she told CBC News.

WATCH | CBC News captures exchange between encampment resident and city worker at Trinity Bellwoods Park:

Susan Gibson, who is currently living in an encampment in Trinity Bellwoods Park, speaks with a city worker as Toronto police and city crews moved to evict people experiencing homelessness on Tuesday. 4:24

Gibson, 65, said she’s working with a housing support worker to get permanent housing but that the process takes time — especially on a limited income. In the interim, she’s living at Trinity Bellwoods.

“I intend to stay here until I can get into permanent housing. I don’t see any better option,” she said.

When a city official tried to encourage Gibson to leave for a shelter, she told him that she couldn’t for health reasons. She questioned who she was harming in the park. When the official told her the park was for everyone, Gibson agreed. 

“Exactly,” she said.

After police and security guards began staging at the park, other residents arrived in a bid to prevent them from evicting those living in the encampment. (Linda Ward/CBC)

More than 100 ‘fire events’ at encampments this year: city

Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Toronto, said it’s one thing for the city council to pass a motion advocating for zero encampments, but making it a reality is a little more complicated

“I’m pretty angry and I’m pretty disappointed. I’m also not surprised,” she said. “They certainly haven’t offered housing,” she said. “The city needs to step up.”

Advocates and other residents who support those living in the encampment began to arrive at the park shortly after police and security guards. They linked arms around some of the tents and structures to prevent city officials from speaking with those inside.

In its news release, the city said that the outdoor encampment presents health and safety risks for those living there, particularly with regard to fires.

There have been 114 “fire events” in encampments so far this year, according to the city.

“In 2020, Toronto Fire Services responded to 253 fires in encampments — a 247 per cent increase over the same period in 2019,” the city said.

“Since 2010, seven people have lost their lives as a result of fires in encampments in Toronto.”

That’s not a good enough reason to evict people, said Lam.

Fears over safety at shelters, threats of violence

“Fires happen in homes, we don’t tell people to stop cooking,” she said. “Fires happen with Christmas trees and we don’t ban Christmas trees.”

Lam said it’s clear that shelters are not safe, regardless of the city’s reassurances.

Lam also noted that there was a fire in one of the hotels the city turned into a shelter earlier this year. Jennifer Jewell, who was staying in the shelter at that time, told CBC News in February about being trapped on the 15th floor when shelter staff evacuated during the fire.

Jewell, who is disabled and uses a walker, said she was forced to call 911 on her own after it became apparent she had been left behind.

“I thought I was going to die,” she told CBC News. “I’m still waking up in the middle of the night dreaming that I did burn to death.”

At Trinity Bellwoods Park, Jimmy Pudjunas said he would not take the city’s offer to move into a shelter because of the threat of violence. 

However, he spent the morning trying to pack up his belongings from his sprawling tent and wooden structure shelter.

“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. “They say you can’t live here, not that you can’t live, so I’m going to find a spot under the bridge,” he said.

In an emailed statement, city spokesperson Brad Ross said, “We want this to be peaceful above all else.”

Shortly before 1 p.m. on Tuesday, residents and their supporters were still standing by their encampments. Security has surrounded the area and nobody is being allowed in.

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