TORONTO — The City of Toronto spent months laying out plans to clear about two dozen people from a homeless encampment in a popular park last summer, building dossiers on those living there and involving hundreds of municipal workers in the process, internal documents reveal.
The details are contained in thousands of pages obtained by activists through freedom-of-information laws.
The city documents, shared with The Canadian Press, reveal the scale of the clearing effort for Trinity Bellwoods Park — an operation that took place last June and eventually turned violent.
Homeless encampments began popping up across Toronto in March 2020 as hundreds fled shelters for fear of contracting COVID-19. Some residents said they felt safer outdoors and sought the feeling of community generated by the encampments.
By late 2020, there were more than 50 encampments across Toronto, the documents show. The city had won a court battle that upheld a bylaw preventing camping in Toronto parks and began focusing on taking action against what it termed the “big four” encampments — including Trinity Bellwoods.
In December 2020, documents indicate the city was making efforts to negotiate with encampment residents and their supporters, with hopes of forming an “encampment discussion table.”
Chris Brillinger, executive director of Family Services Toronto, acted as a volunteer mediator between the two sides and wrote to city staff on Dec. 29, 2020.
“You need a full time facilitator/mediator for a two-to-three month period to move this forward,” he wrote. “The community needs help to organize itself. It is composed largely of front line staff and volunteers who are exhausted, physically and emotionally.”
Tracey Cook, the city’s deputy manager, responded within in an hour.
“There is certainly one thing I immediately see we all have in common ? City staff are also emotionally and physically exhausted.”
In early January 2021, bureaucrats began formulating plans to clear the big four encampments.
On Jan. 7, 2021, Mayor John Tory’s chief of staff sent an email to Cook, saying she and her colleague “were hoping to meet with you in the next couple weeks to discuss encampments and, specifically, our plan for the spring. The Mayor has started asking…”
On Jan. 22, Cook emailed the mayor’s office and the city manager a PowerPoint presentation called “Encampment work — proposed next steps.”
It noted that the city planned to work in “parallel buckets” — engaging with encampment residents and their supporters while also planning to clear the parks in April.
“We are all concerned about encampments come spring,” the presentation said. “We have identified the highest priority parks based on risk and impact, and we need to create a plan and schedule on how we will action these parks.”
Talks between the city and homeless advocates broke down in February when the city announced it had filed an injunction against Khaleel Seivwright, a carpenter making “tiny shelters” for the homeless. The advocates felt betrayed, emails show.
Meanwhile, the plan to clear the encampments was gradually coming into focus.
City documents show staff planned to post trespass notices at the encampments that would be enforceable within 72 hours.
“We are working with the idea of providing a softer communication to encampment folks and following up with a legal posting after we have moved several inside voluntarily,” Dan Breault, the city’s lead on the encampment file, wrote to the mayor’s chief of staff on March 2, 2021.
The city also had information on each encampment resident in a confidential document titled “Trinity Bellwoods Analysis.”
One encampment resident was deemed “most likely to escalate,” with the file noting he “is always on-site and has large clutter surrounding encampment that he claims to make art with.”
Another resident was said to be “non-confrontational and will likely leave when told,” while the file said a different individual “will not respond well if rushed, however will leave site if told he has to leave in a timely manner.”
Several others were considered violent, the city said, and would pose risks to staff.
A note in the operational plan said one individual “frequently verbally escalates towards city staff; Walks around carrying a staff (long pole); and has told numerous city staff that he knows karate and is ‘not afraid to use it.'” That individual, the city said, “talks very strongly about the ‘war’ against the city.”
In a statement this week, spokesman Brad Ross said the city keeps documented records of encampment residents “to ensure that they are offering the appropriate services that meet their unique needs along with access to indoor space.”
The city also compiled aerial maps of all the tents in the park, each identified with a number and related to each resident.
A.J. Withers, co-founder of FactCheckToronto.ca, the homeless advocacy group that was involved with sharing the documents with The Canadian Press, said the files indicate the city had been negotiating with the homeless in bad faith.
“The massive evictions that they planned at Trinity Bellwoods were really set up to fail,” Withers said in an interview.
“They had this massive surveillance program of the residents of Trinity Bellwoods Park that makes it really clear that they knew that people would respond poorly if they were rushed … They set up a powder keg and unsurprisingly it went off.”
The city ultimately took action at Trinity Bellwoods in June, weeks after a failed clearing operation at Lamport Stadium Park, where a large crowd showed up to support encampment residents in a standoff with police.
On June 22, 2021, staff showed up early in the morning at Trinity Bellwoods with more than 100 hired security guards and fences were erected around two encampment areas. Residents, many of whom said they lived with mental health and substance abuse disorders, were told they had two hours to pack and either take an offer to a hotel or leave. Some were in crisis that day.
Several clashes eventually broke out between police and the homeless and their supporters. A battle erupted over a fence that supporters tried to take down while police fought to keep it upright. Another skirmish broke out when police unleashed pepper spray, which inadvertently hit several security guards, the documents said.
The riot squad moved in near the end of the day, once most of the crowd had dispersed, and cleared the park.
Ross said the fencing was erected to protect city workers and saidthe protesters prevented staff from doing their jobs. Those protesters were cautioned, he said, and when they didn’t leave, the city called in Toronto police to clear the area.
The city, Ross said, has taken “extraordinary measures to help those people experiencing homelessness” and is trying to strike a balance between the homeless and the community.
“The city’s response to encampments takes into consideration the health and well-being of those living outside and the broader community needs,” he said. “The city cannot force people to come inside and avail themselves of the many services offered by the City, but living in an encampment in a city park is unhealthy and illegal.”
–With files from Paola Loriggio and Chris Young