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Soapbox: Belle Park life essentials must remain in place until better housing can be provided

Editorial note: The following is a submitted op/ed piece by Matt Silburn and Jeremy Milloy on behalf of Mutual Aid Katarokwi Kingston (MAKK) and does not necessarily reflect the views and beliefs of Kingstonist.

Residents of Belle Park are living under a looming deadline – August 1. That is the date set by the City to recriminalize the houseless residents of Belle Park and when they have threatened to start a process of forced evictions from the community. The first step of that eviction has been scheduled. It would target all current park services, removing running water, electricity, garbage disposal, and toilets.

There is no need for the City of Kingston to do this.

Other cities such as London and Kitchener, Ontario, as part of providing a COVID-19 response to houseless people, determined that tent encampments will be allowed to remain in place for a year, or indefinitely, depending on the jurisdiction. In Toronto, a group has launched a court application to the Superior Court asserting that City threats to evict them violate their rights and demanding a halt to any attempts to remove them from City parks.

Here, the City has decided to set up a cooling center at Artillery Park, and over the last few weeks, services agencies HIV/AIDS Regional Services (HARS) and Street Health Centre have been working to do this, as requested by the City. The cooling center was to be fully functional, with overnight beds available, by July 20th. That way, residents of Belle Park would be able to try it out and so that service agencies would be able to make changes prior to the eviction date set for Belle Park.

While we commend HARS and Street Health on the efforts they have made to meaningfully engage residents in this process, unfortunately, at present the cooling centre is far from where it was supposed to be. As of July 24th, the center was open only about 6 hours a day, and no overnight beds were available due to lack of staffing. While this is set to open on Friday the 31rst, this is late given the proposed deadline of August 1st.

Even operating at full capacity, the cooling centre is not a housing solution.

In the meantime, people continue to move into Belle Park, and people without housing in other parts of the City have been redirected to the park by cops and by-law officers, despite the City’s current plan to evict residents and remove basic services from the park. A recent count puts the number of residents in Belle Park at around 40 people. Community members and agencies continue to demonstrate their support for Belle Park residents through the provision of food and resources, harm reduction services, and advocacy.

There is nothing stopping City staff from allowing residents of the Belle Park community to have continued access to essential services. We are now calling on City staff to leave all services in place for residents of Belle Park as long as there remain people camping there.

People at Belle Park must have continued access to running water, toilets, garbage removal, and electricity. This would keep the City in compliance with the UN National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada, which recommends that municipalities support such encampments with the provision of basic services. Surely maintaining these hygienic measures is all the more important in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

While the City Staff and Council have refused to extend the bylaw against camping on City property past the end of July, it is not too late for them to act in the best interests of Belle Park residents and the health, security, and dignity of our entire community. We call upon them to recognize the human rights violations and impact on sanitation, hygiene, and infection control of removing services from Belle Park as long as residents continue to reside there. We at MAKK will continue organizing to support these residents while they are living at Belle Park.

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