A month after a massive operation to clear encampments at Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park, authorities have moved in to end a months-long encampment at Alexandra Park and police say at least nine people have been arrested.
The first arrest was reported by police to have occurred at around 7:15 a.m. on Tuesday. By Tuesday afternoon, an update from the service said seven people were arrested for trespassing, another person was arrested for public intoxication and the ninth person was arrested on an outstanding warrant. It’s not clear if anyone was ultimately charged.
Among those briefly arrested was a Canadian Press photographer who was on assignment covering the developments.
Toronto Police Staff Supt. Randy Carter told reporters officers were at the park to support City of Toronto security guards.
“Our goal here is to de-escalate and obviously keep the peace but it’s also to make sure that everyone remains safe and that of course includes not only the city workers and of course the tenants of the encampment but it also included those who want to come and demonstrate,” he said.
According to a news release issued by the City of Toronto early Tuesday, the move came after trespass notices were issued to those living at park, located at Bathurst Street and Dundas Street West.
Officials estimated there are 28 to 35 people are living at the park and said there are approximately 60 structures on the site.
“All individuals experiencing homelessness in this encampment … are being offered safe, indoor space, with access to meals, showers and laundry, harm reduction, physical and mental health supports, and a housing worker,” the statement said, noting the park will be closed on Tuesday while the operation occurs.
“All individuals will be required to leave the park, which will allow City crews to start removing debris and restoring the grounds.
“Occupants will be given time to pack two bags of belongings to take with them. All other belongings will be collected and stored for up to 30 days for future pickup.”
Private security guards and orange fencing were brought in by the City of Toronto to surround the park while the operation occurred.
The statement said there have been 146 calls for service from municipal officials and emergency crews. In September, a fire broke out at the park after a cardboard box was placed over a generator.
City of Toronto spokesperson Brad Ross told Global News Tuesday afternoon that 11 out of 26 people at Alexandra Park had accepted a referral to move inside, while 15 left the area themselves.
“Camping in parks is not only unhealthy and unsafe, but is also illegal and so we have given ample notice to individuals who are encamped that they cannot camp there,” Ross said.
“We have engaged with people living outside in encampments some 20,000 times since the start of this pandemic, making offers of safe indoor accommodation and ultimately housing. In fact we have successfully referred more than 1,700 people inside since the start of the pandemic and housed some 5,800 people from shelters since the start of the pandemic…
“The parks need to be available to everybody, including people experiencing homelessness, but you can’t camp in a park and we have space available, we have services on offer to help individuals come inside and ultimately to be housed and to stay housed. That is critically important.”
Domenico Saxida told reporters he has been living at Alexandra Park and said he doesn’t know where he’s going to go next.
“Canadians that are watching this now, you should be ashamed of your country, especially your politicians. I don’t know what level of government that’s supposed to be building geared-to-income housing, but COVID has brought this to light,” he said.
“As much as pain and suffering and death it’s caused, this pulls the carpet under that the government has been sweeping underneath the carpet for a very long time.”
Saxida said he is worried about women who have been staying in the park.
“I would like to know what’s going to happen to them when they have nowhere to go. Like what, where are they going to go? What are they going to do? The shelters are overloaded and the hotels are all overloaded. They are unsafe. I know several people who have died in both and all of this is not necessary,” he said.
Diana Chan McNally, the training and engagement coordinator with the Toronto Drop-in Network, said those who have been living in Alexandra Park have done so because it allows them to access much-needed resources.
“In Kensington, they have supports, down on Queen Street they have supports. It’s accessible for them and they are right in the middle of that. If they get displaced very far away, do we know where they go? Not always. Are they going to be further away from things like an overdose prevention site, harm reduction supplies, meals and case management? Yes,” she said.
“So it’s going to be highly disruptive to them, which frankly will not only cause harm but also could result in people dying.”
Meanwhile, the push to clear Alexandra Park followed municipal action taken on June 22 at Trinity Bellwoods Park that saw clashes between Toronto police officers and protesters.
Dozens of officers, bylaw enforcement officers, security guards attended the park to oversee the removal of those living in the park as large temporary fences were erected at the southwest corner of the park. The response was heavily criticized by advocates at the time.
Hundreds fled Toronto’s homeless shelters for fear of contracting COVID-19 when the pandemic hit and dozens of encampments popped up throughout the city.
Many who live in the camps previously told Global News the shelters and hotels offered by the City of Toronto aren’t a desirable option in part due to the limit on belongings and the rules and curfews imposed as well as other safety-related issues.
Recent data obtained by The Canadian Press showed a significant rise in violent incidents in Toronto’s shelter system over the last five years.
City staff said the shelter system is safe and has said it will eventually clear the homeless encampments, which it says are unsafe. City council also recently passed a motion to end encampments.
— With files from Erica Vella, Ryan Rocca and The Canadian Press