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City, Kingston Police address homeless camp at City Hall

A still from the City’s Springer Market Square webcam shows tarp-based shelters currently housing a few people behind City Hall on Thursday, Apr. 9, 2020.

Right now, many of Kingston’s residents are staying home as much as possible, but for some in the city that don’t have a place to call home, Springer Market Square behind City Hall has been acting as home base since the start of April.

There, tarps have been erected into small tents and enclosures where a handful of people sleep each night. During the day, they stay at the Square with their belongings, and use the portable washrooms the City installed when public washrooms were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And while many residents haven’t seen this makeshift setup in the place that’s normally filled with vendors as the Kingston Farmers’ Market season kicks off in April, those who have seen it have asked why these people are there, and what is being done to help them.

The City’s seasonal warming centre shut down just before the end of March, and, due to the current pandemic, many local support agencies are no longer offering services within their facilities.

The City of Kingston, Kingston Police, and Home Base Housing are aware of the camp (for lack of better term). The City indicated that “the setup behind City Hall is a Kingston Police matter,” but did state that Home Base Housing has confirmed the individuals living there have been offered places to stay in the physical distancing shelter on multiple occasions.

The physical distancing shelter was opened by the City with a number of partners, including Home Base Housing, earlier this month. It is located at the former Fairfield Manor East building at 670 MacLean Court in the east end of the city. But the individuals currently living behind City Hall have indicated they do not want to go to the shelter for a variety of reasons, according to Sgt. Steve Koopman of Kingston Police.

Koopman said that both he and Urban Foot Patrol officer, Cst. Sarah Groenewegen, have been in contact with those at the camp on several occasions.

“Each individual has their own unique set of circumstances why they have chosen to situate themselves in these locations and not use shelters,” Koopman said.

Some of them do not like the shelter environment, some have personality conflicts with other clients, some are temporarily not welcome at the physical distancing shelter due to breaches of the shelter’s rules and regulations, and some have indicated they are only in Kingston temporarily, Koopman explained. Furthermore, if they were to attend In From the Cold, Kingston’s largest shelter run by Home Base Housing, they would have to agree to self-isolate for 14 days to protect other clients and staff. Some of those currently staying behind City Hall do not like that restriction, Koopman said, noting that local shelters are currently close to capacity.

Koopman said that Kingston Police have attended the set up at Springer Market Square to check on the welfare of those staying there on numerous occasions. Additionally, Home Base Housing’s Street Outreach Team continues to check in with these individuals on a near-daily basis, visiting with them and monitoring the situation, but also offering food and referrals. However, it is ultimately up to the individuals themselves to decide whether or not they’d prefer to be housed in a local shelter, Koopman expressed.

But in a time when health authorities and all levels of government are urging residents to remain at home to stop the spread of COVID-19, are those currently residing behind City Hall at risk?

“From our assessment these individuals pose minimal risk for the spread of COVID-19. Some social services have been reduced due to the pandemic which offers challenges to those who are homeless, have no fixed address, are of limited financial means, and/or are living with mental illness,” Koopman said. “If they’re not willing to self-isolate for 14 days as per the shelter’s requirements, then they pose less of a risk being alone or with only one or two other individuals.”

“It has been confirmed they are not in a social gathering of more than five and if anything have reduced their exposure to the general public,” Koopman continued. “They have been advised not to gather in groups of more than five and that this is a temporary allowance which could change dependent on a number of circumstances. They were understanding of my conversation with them.”

Koopman said that Kingston Police have been in contact with City of Kingston Bylaw Enforcement to ensure a consistent approach is being taken towards this situation. He also indicated that Kingston Police do not have the authority to quarantine or apprehend the individuals, as they currently do not pose a public health risk to the general population (which would require an order from KFL&A Public Health) or a mental health risk to themselves. Additionally, police only have the authority to enforce that no groups of five or more individuals gather (which those behind City Hall are not doing), but do not have the authority to enforce the physical distancing guidelines of two metres (six feet) of separation.

And, while the situation is fluid and could change in the future, for now, allowing the individuals to remain in Springer Market Square seems to be the best option, Koopman explained.

“If we remove them from their current location they are most likely to simply setup somewhere else on city property, not solving any problems,” he said. “The Outreach Team and police currently know their location and can continue to monitor and provide assistance where and when needed.”

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