City of Toronto bylaw officers and police officers have clashed with protesters over people living in an encampment at Trinity Bellwoods Park.
“I’m just in complete disbelief. I’m shocked. I’ve never seen police being so aggressive before,” Coco White, who lived at the encampment before being removed by officers, told Global News Tuesday afternoon, adding friends were helping them relocate to a hotel temporarily.
“They just kind of kicked us out the park. I was already ready and I had myself gathered … I was not afraid. My friends, they helped me bring my stuff out.”
In a statement released on Tuesday, City staff said they are enforcing trespass notices issued 10 days ago.
It was just before 4:20 a.m. when, according to a Toronto Police Service tweet, that officers to assist City staff “while they move encampment residents to safe, inside accommodations” and to “ensure the safety of everyone.”
Dozens of city bylaw officers, along with dozens of police officers and security guards were seen at the park along with large crowds of protesters as temporary fences were set up around the encampments.
Protesters could be heard chanting “who do you service, who do you protect?” and “let them stay” as police and bylaw officers pushed back against fences to keep crowds back.
Officers said in a statement late Tuesday that three people were charged: one with assault with a weapon, another with assaulting peace officer, and the third with two counts of weapons dangerous.
During an unrelated news conference Tuesday afternoon, acting police chief James Ramer defended the involvement of officers on Tuesday. He said the City of Toronto led the operation and added the parks haven’t been able to be used by all residents.
“It’s been something well-known that the City was taking a position on to find suitable housing for our vulnerable people,” Ramer told reporters.
“A lot of demonstrators that arrived, they come in the morning when they find out. They’re there just to obstruct and interfere. Our officers are there to ensure the safety of everyone involved and that’s all we’re interested in.
So for those that are there, please just standby and let the City workers and the police do the jobs they need to do and everybody goes home safely.”
City officials estimates there are 20 to 25 people living at the encampment and there are approximately 65 structures. In a tweet, they said residents are being offered “safe, indoor space, with access to meals, showers and laundry, harm reduction, physical and mental health supports, and a housing worker.”
Municipal staff said the people at the encampment are being given time to pack two bags of belongings to take with them and all other items will be collected and stored for up to 30 days for pick-up later. Workers in hazardous materials-related bodysuits were seen removing items.
They said six residents from the camps have accepted the City’s offer to go to a shelter or hotel and have begun packing their belongings.
However, Susan Gibson, a 65-year-old woman living in the encampment told Global News she was “rudely” informed by the City that she will have about two to three hours to remove herself and her belongings.
“For health and safety reasons I won’t go into a shelter space, or a hotel,” Gibson said.
“So I am going to stay here and risk arrest.”
She said living at Trinity Bellwoods Park is “not out of choice, but out of necessity,” adding she is currently working with a housing worker to secure rent subsidy and get into permanent housing.
Many who live in the camps have said the shelters and hotels offered by the city aren’t a desirable option, in part due to the limit on belongings and the rules and curfews imposed.
Allie Graham, an outreach volunteer, told Global News affordability is also a factor in the decision for many.
“So many people in this city cannot afford to live here and are paycheque to paycheque and so it’s not necessarily that people who we’re defending today or are trying to support and stay in the park … the issue is that there aren’t other spaces that are better than the park,” she said while also highlighting similar safety issues in the shelter.
“So really we’re left with the situation between this park or that park, or this ravine or this ravine, if you don’t want to go into the shelter system, if you don’t have adequate options rent-geared-to-income housing or subsidies and so people are left with very little options.
“If there were better options, people would be taking them … we’re in this continual cycle of displacement and movement that is harmful to people and so now we’re kind of in this gridlock with the City where they’d rather give out trespass notices with heavy fines and warnings and risk of violence than they would pour money and resources into actually creating subsidies that are sustainable.”
Graham said there’s a certain sense of autonomy of being in a space and people can have better control of space. Also, she highlighted that being in the park allows people to access nearby supports.
Tuesday’s move also came after Toronto city council recently passed a motion to end encampments.
— With files from The Canadian Press