Eviction notices handed out to some in Belle Park by mistake have residents worried about what’s to come Friday, the city’s deadline for campers to vacate the park.
On Tuesday, several bylaw officers showed up to Belle Park and handed out eviction notices to people who had moved behind the parking lot fence, in the grassy section of the park, despite council setting the eviction deadline for July 31.
“It created so much tension and fighting … mass chaos,” said one Belle Park resident, who asked not to be named because she settled at Belle Park to flee from an abusive partner.
Chrystal Wilson, an advocate working with the Belle Park residents, said bylaw official’s initial visit to the park caused an incident that sent one person to the emergency room.
“In the chaos of trying to move everyone and their belongings, an accident occurred which resulted in me having to take a gentleman to the ER — he had a broken cheekbone and required stitches,” Wilson wrote in a letter to CAO Lanie Hurdle.
Later Tuesday, Hurdle apologized in a statement, calling the written notices a mistake and saying that bylaw officers were simply meant to verbally inform those who had settled on the grass behind the main camp to move back to the parking lot.
Belle Park is built on a landfill and the land is now contaminated, and it has been determined unsafe for camping. The city said those who had moved beyond the parking lot were asked to move from the contaminated land for health and safety reasons back to the main camp.
On Wednesday, Hurdle noted that the city was informed some residents had moved beyond the parking lot, which was approved by the city and public health for longer-term occupation, which is why bylaw was sent in to request the campers move back.
The city also maintains those directions were communicated to the campers when the eviction notices were handed out, but several campers said they were simply told to leave the park altogether, or they would be forcibly removed. The notices handed out to residents and posted on unattended tents simply say to remove all personal items from “Belle Park.”
“You have to vacate the area, you have two hours,” the anonymous camper said she was told by a bylaw officer.
“They told us that if we didn’t comply, that police would be here to physically remove us,” Justin Emigh, another resident said.
“They actually specifically said that we had to leave the park and the parking lot. We couldn’t be on this on this property whatsoever,” Emigh claims.
“I had just woken up and we had the city bylaw come in and tell us all that we had two hours to remove our tents from the premises and all of our belongings or else they would be destroyed,” Kyle Loyst, another camper, said.
Bylaw returned later in the day to clarify that the written eviction notices were a mistake and that officers were simply suggesting that campers move back to the main lot. They assured residents that bylaw officers would not be forcing anyone to move that day.
On Thursday, Hurdle said the mistaken written notices were due to a “breakdown in communication.”
“(This) led to a misunderstanding in the implementation, resulting in a verbal and written notification that asked people to leave the park rather than relocating to a safer part of the property,” Hurdle said in a written statement.
Loyst said in the rush to move his stuff, he broke his tent, forcing him to sleep in another tent with one of his camp-mates, who had also moved beyond the parking lot in a section behind the clubhouse. Loyst said they moved to the grassy section because they worried the main camp was becoming too crowded for social distancing.
Although some moved back to the parking lot on Tuesday, Loyst and his friends still remain in the grassy section of the park, and told Global News that he plans to stay put on Friday, even if bylaw comes back with eviction notices.
Other campers said they will be staying too.
“That’s kind of the only option. It’s either that or the street. While you sleep on the street and you end up in jail anyway,” Emigh said.
Jeremy Milloy, a member of Mutual Aid Katarokwi-Kingston, a cooperative that, among other endeavours, offers support to those at Belle Park, said without any permanent housing options for the campers, he hopes the city will continue to allow the residents to stay on-site for the time being.
The city has set up a 24-hour shelter at Artillery Park, which will provide beds, WiFi, showers and food for campers, as well as mental-health and supportive services, but it will not be a place where residents can stay long-term. It is meant to be fully operational on Friday.
“We know that the city and local partners are working on a cooling center at Artillery Park, and that’s a laudable development, but that is not a housing solution and that is not currently ready to fill the gap in the city, the situation that has been identified by the residents maintaining community here,” Milloy said.
Milloy said the pandemic has forced many residents to congregate in Belle Park, which borders Montreal Street. The visibility of the homeless camp, in turn, forced out what Milloy called longstanding issues with the lack of affordable housing options for Kingston’s most vulnerable populations.
Several of the campers echoed that sentiment.
“I just want a place to live,” the female resident said. “Artillery park, it’s not a solution. They can’t guarantee a bed for everybody,” she said. She also added that currently, Artillery Park is not offering enough storage to house everyone’s items, including barring any clothing or cloth material in the shelter’s lockers. She also says that when Friday comes, she will choose to stay in the park.
Loyst said he worries about having to relocate to be close to Artillery Park, which is right downtown.
“They say Artillery Park, but, you know, that’s on a street in the downtown core. So for a lot of us, that just increases our struggle to maintain the success of what we have going on here. A lot of us have addiction issues, and being in the downtown core is, just, it’s problematic,” Loyst said.
During the novel coronavirus pandemic, many in the region have found safe haven in Belle Park, as opposed to shelters, which have had implement social distancing regulations.
The city opened shelters for those worried about contracting COVID-19 at the old Fairfield Manor location, but Loyst said the shelters didn’t make accommodations for his addiction issues.
“They pushed us all to go there. But there’s 14-day quarantine where you can’t leave your room, and a lot of us are on like methadone programs, where we have to go to the pharmacy every morning,” Loyst said.
Emigh said that he and his wife, Sylvia Clarke, do not like going to shelters since they would be separated, and found they would rather sleep in a tent together than apart at a shelter.
Despite Belle Park seeming to be many of the campers’ preferred option for now, several expressed feeling unsafe in the park, and are hoping for better options for housing.
“I’m not used to this. I was never silver spoon but I’m not used to living in a tent,” the woman who wished to remain anonymous said.
Clarke told Global News that she and Emigh moved to the back of the park because people were starting to fight while living in close quarters in the parking lot. In fact, a verbal argument almost turned physical Wednesday during Emigh’s interview.
The woman who wished to remain anonymous says she’s been repeatedly harassed by a new resident in the park.
“Every day, he threatens to hurt me,” she said.
What each of the residents expressed was the need for safe and permanent housing outside of the park.
“Every person in here wants that,” Justin said.
The city does have plans for a more long-term housing option, but it’s unclear when it will be available for the Belle Park campers.
In early July, Mayor Bryan Paterson sent out a tweet saying the city purchased a building for $2.1 million that they aim to use as supportive housing for Belle Park campers and others to live in.
To make it work, the mayor says the provincial and federal governments need to step up with funding for operational costs.
“A lot of supportive housing, what we’re talking about is mental health, it’s health care and that’s something that is absolutely in the purview of the province,” Paterson told Global News for a previous interview.
For that story, MPP Ian Arthur agreed that the region was in need of more immediate and long-term funding to support affordable and supportive housing. Arthur and the city did not immediately respond to a request for more information on the matter.
As for the eviction date, the city assures that no one will be forcefully removed from Belle Park on Friday. The city also said 12 residents have already been permanently rehoused.
Nevertheless, Tuesday’s incident has some campers concerned that bylaw will be coming in and handing out eviction notices, and actively enforcing those notices.
“It was a taste of what’s to come,” the woman who wished to be anonymous said.
Wilson said no one at the camp has any idea what bylaw’s plans will be for Friday, but she has organized a pancake breakfast for those at the park at 8 a.m., to boost morale.