The following is a submitted open letter to the Kingston City Council. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of The Kingstonist.
Dear Mayor Paterson and elected councillors of the City of Kingston,
I am writing to you today, a week after the forced eviction of remaining residents at Belle Park tent encampment, to share one version of the Belle Park story for your consideration. This narrative is important to remember when you reflect on what happened at Belle Park over the last four months, as well as when our City is faced, as it is sure to be, with similar situations in the future. The Belle Park eviction on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020 had real impacts on people’s physical, social and emotional well-being, for which there must be a reckoning.
The Belle Park encampment emerged in late April of this year in the context of real concerns around the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people experiencing homelessness in this city. This encampment occurred at a time of increased public awareness around the issue of homelessness in Kingston following the publicized evictions of people from other sites, including Market Square, MacDonald Park across from Kingston Health Sciences Centre, and the Memorial Centre, among others. The game of malicious musical chairs which is routinely played with the lives of people experiencing homelessness, where they are repeatedly moved from place to place by public officials, losing their belongings and in a constant state of physical and emotional insecurity, is not new, however in light of concerns around marginalized groups during the COVID-19 pandemic, it got the attention of, and galvanized, substantial public support.
At Belle Park, suddenly, the game stopped (albeit the music was always playing in the background). There followed four months of community building. People living in Belle Park settled in, developed community, provided physical and emotional safety for each other, and stopped wondering where they would sleep each night and whether or not their belongings would be there when they got back at the end of the day. For the better part of four months, people had somewhat regular access to food, modest sanitation services, availability of harm reduction and mental health support, and community support through the provision of tents, ongoing lobbying for improvements in sanitation services, and a sense, albeit temporary, that their presence was legitimate. No community is perfect, and support was never what it should have been, but during these four months there were no deaths from overdose, there was minimal conflict, and residents started to advocate for themselves and each other with the media, with City council, and with the broader community. People developed a sense of belonging, and people’s mental and social well-being improved. When visiting Belle Park, residents were engaged, made eye contact, had ideas and opinions about what they needed, and how their City could be a better place.
Then City Council stepped in.
Two good things have come out of Belle Park, and I will return to the encampment in a moment. First, the Artillery Park Hub, as articulated by Mr. Gilles Charette of HIV/AIDS Regional Services (HARS) Kingston at council on September 1st, has obviously filled a need that has been long standing in Kingston for a low-barrier space where services can be provided in a coordinated and client-centered fashion. This has been a model in other communities and has been missing in Kingston for a long time. This is obviously well used and needed, and we hope that at the end of September this service will expand rather than end, and that the breadth of services offered, including the safe injection site, will grow. Second, several residents of the Belle Park community did secure housing, through their own devices and/or through support from City staff and community organizations. This is obviously a good thing.
Both of these things could have, and should have, happened without the threat of eviction and eventual forced eviction of Belle Park residents.
In this, Council has failed.
It is easy to say that City staff could have extended the encampment, as they did through the month of August, without official approval of Council. Ultimately, however, the eviction at Belle Park on Tuesday rests on the shoulders of the Mayor and Councillors.
It was your decision, based on the complaints of some private citizens and your own ideology around private and public property, bylaws, what is and is not acceptable, visually or otherwise, in this City, that resulted in the forced eviction of about 10 remaining residents at Belle Park by dozen police officers and another dozen city workers.
It was your decision that resulted in the sadly ironic situation that unfolded whereby allies and Belle Park residents moved belongings further into the woods, as you were told they would, while City staff, workers, and police looked on.
It was your decision that resulted in people who were previously a community now being spread out around town, more difficult to access, with less physical, emotional, or social support, in a week that has seen four overdose deaths in Kingston.
It was your decision that has led to, three days after being evicted from Belle Park, further eviction notices being issued to the same people who were evicted just three days prior, as they look for somewhere that is deemed acceptable for them to sleep.
It was your decision that pressed “play” on the satirical game of musical chairs that those who have power continue to play with the lives of those who do not.
But this is not a game. Too many people, now out of the public eye, still have nowhere to call home. The parking lot at Belle Park is clean and tidy now. What did this accomplish?
Eva Purkey and Toni Thornton
On behalf of Mutual Aid Katarokwi Kingston