During a special meeting on Wednesday, Jun. 29, 2022, members of Kingston City Council voted against a proposal to allow sanctioned encampments on public property, instead opting to reinstate its encampment protocol while directing additional funds to help the city’s unhoused population.
At a meeting in May, Council opted to suspend the City’s encampment protocol while staff prepared a report based on additional research. This report would investigate a potential encampment pilot project, as well as other options to address the rise of encampments on public property in Kingston. On Thursday, Council was presented with the completed report, which outlined five different options to address the issue. The first four options in the staff report centered around approval of a sanctioned encampment at either the Integrated Care Hub (ICH), Belle Park, or another City-owned property, while the fifth option was a complete prohibition of any encampments on public property.
Wednesday’s meeting, which took over six hours, began with a number of delegations from the public, as some people voiced their support for a proposed encampment, while others raised concerns about public safety and potential disruptions to businesses, parks, and other public spaces.
Marijo Cuerrier, Executive Director of Downtown Kingston, addressed the issue of homelessness broadly and its impact on downtown businesses since the start of the pandemic. “In , COVID-19 left downtown streets across North America abandoned for an extended period of time, allowing for unsafe and unwelcome behaviour to take over with little to no consequences. We’re on the cusp of the first summer at full capacity since 2019. Securing the streets of downtown Kingston is a priority, making it safe, clean, and welcoming for everyone.
“Over the past year I’ve fielded numerous calls, emails, texts, and visits from property and business owners, locals, and visitors, varying from genuine concern to anger and frustration. I’m here tonight representing the downtown business and property owners that want to see improvements in the safety and security of downtown,” added Cuerrier.
Krista LeClair, Executive Director of Kingston Accommodation Partners, spoke to the ways in which the increased presence of unhoused individuals in the downtown core has impacted her members, making it difficult for businesses to attract new employees. “The unsafe [situations] staff have found themselves in is worrisome, making the impact on businesses very challenging. Challenging to keep workers safe and challenging to attract and retain staff.”
Bhavana Varma, President and CEO of United Way Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington (KFL&A), warned of some of the consequences if Council were to opt for one of the encampment options in their current proposed form. “Sanctioned encampments are temporary and costly interventions that need to be appropriately resourced and staffed if they are to be successful. The proposed recommendation for low-cost solutions could potentially result in under-resourced encampments… which may give rise to unhealthy and unsafe conditions.”
“I’d like Council to consider whether these funds could be better invested in additional safe and low-barrier shelter beds, using a harm reduction approach,” suggested Varma, who also noted the current employee shortage for support agencies in Kingston.
One of the proposals involved moving encampment residents from the ICH site to Belle Park, given the potential for contaminated soil at the current site. Kingston resident Matt Silburn, who identified as a member of Mutual Aid Katarokwi Kingston, raised concerns about this plan, noting that there are safety issues that supercede that of soil contamination. “The long-term potential risk of sleeping on top of toxic soil is nothing compared to the very acute risk of death from the toxic drug supply,” Silburn asserted. “Not only is the City not moving forward with the [de]criminalization and safe-supply programs, which could save lives, [but] moving people away from the ICH will actively endanger them.”
“We can’t let the threat of liability keep us from doing what everyone who’s familiar with the risk of the drug poisoning crisis is telling us: they need to stay where they are,” argued Silburn.
Sophie Lachappelle, a PhD Student in Criminology at the University of Ottawa who has studied Kingston at length, spoke out against some of the by-laws included in the report. “As multiple studies have shown us, criminalizing poverty through the development of anti-loitering by-laws or public-nuisance by-laws will not increase public safety. We may create the appearance of a liveable city, but such a by-law will only contribute to the unliveable conditions unhoused people are currently experiencing.”
Council also heard from one of the graduates of the City’s sleeping cabins project at Portsmouth Olympic Harbour. “My concern tonight is the safety of the citizens of Kingston, the downtown core, and all this talk about the ‘dangers’ that homeless people are creating for everyone. I have never seen a homeless person attack somebody or give them a hard time… The real people that are in danger, out there in today’s society, are the people that are sleeping in tents freezing to death, starving to death, getting robbed,” expressed the delegate, who identified himself only as Corey, and spoke as part of a delegation from Chrystal Wilson, founder of the organization that runs the sleeping cabins, Our Livable Solutions.
“How many cases do you hear of homeless people attacking the citizens of Kingston?” he posed.
After hearing from more than 19 different delegations, Council then received a presentation from CAO Lanie Hurdle, who spoke about the staff report and the difficulties in handling this file. “I’ve been with the City of Kingston since 2006 and I think this has to be probably the most challenging file; God knows I’ve had my share of controversial files,” remarked the CAO. “This is not something that we can solve alone… We do need support from other levels of government. We can make a small difference alone, but it’s not going to get to the root cause of some of the issues we are trying to address.”
According to Hurdle, the intent of the report was to address some of the issues of public safety associated with the current encampments. “We’ve heard a lot of community concerns in the last engagement… there are concerns with behaviour, there are concerns with what has been happening in the parks and, in some cases, very real situations that have recently taken place in one of our parks downtown involving a child,” she explained. Kingstonist has requested further information on the incident Hurdle referred to, but had not received response by time of publication.
City Solicitor Jenna Morley indicated that “formalized encampments have not yet really been seen in any jurisdiction in Canada” as she spoke to the no-camping provision of Option Five. “When read as a whole, the objective of the Parks and Recreation Facilities By-Law is to ensure that all residents in the City can make use of this common resource… It ensures that all residents can enjoy the park without having an adverse impact on surrounding properties.”
Morley also noted that “successful sanctioned encampments typically provide more than ‘low-cost’ services.” The sanctioned encampments proposed as part of the report would range from $75,200 for a site at Belle Park, to $209,800 for a sanctioned encampment at the ICH.
Following the presentation from City staff, Councillor Jeff McLaren moved Option Five, after which a lengthy debate followed. While the initial option simply called for no sanctioned encampments, the motion was amended to direct the money the City would have spent on an official encampment toward “other forms of housing to support the vulnerable population,” and that City staff work with Kingston Police to provide a “gradual relocation of unhoused individuals currently residing on public property,” said Mayor Bryan Paterson, the mover of the amendment.
According to McLaren, the City does not have the necessary resouces to adequately address the issue on its own. “We cannot solve all the problems ourselves,” he said. “We have needs that are greater than the property tax base can support. And so, if we were to be able to solve all of this, we would need a piece of the income tax pie, and we don’t have that.”
Kingscourt-Rideau District Councillor, Mary Rita Holland, said, “That amount of money can do a lot, and we heard from partners that they’re ready to go to get started on those options.”
Councillor Wayne Hill, the representative for Lakeside District, addressed some concerns as he spoke in favour of Option Five. “This is so complicated, and so difficult to resolve. It has been the most frustrating file by far that I’ve seen in my term here on Council. But what we’re doing is not working, and I think it was done with all good intentions, but it’s not working… We’re in a situation where we are being asked to endorse the other options, a situation that is not safe and not healthy.”
“Mental health is a health issue and that’s a provincial issue… We have to force people at the next level of government to make the appropriate contribution to support us to do what needs to be done. A solution to that is not having people live in encampments,” added Hill, as he called on other levels of government to address the issue.
Pittsburgh District Councillor, Ryan Boehme, echoed Hill’s and McLaren’s comments. “We’re probably at the limit of what we can afford as a city… These are City problems because we face them every day, but these are beyond the responsibility and the capability of a City to manage them on their own.”
“The problem seems to always rest with us because we are the closest level of government to the people, but these are problems that we’re not equipped and/or funded to actually deal with,” added Boehme.
While many councillors spoke in favour of Option Five, Sydenham District’s Peter Stroud reiterated his support for a sanctioned encampment. “The idea of the related encampment was to try the situation [for] those that are already camping, knowing that they have chosen the camping lifestyle and, as we’ve heard, some have done so for years… It would give us a humanitarian option when we enact the encampment protocol.”
“If we do choose Option Five, it’s very clear we are left with a residual, very troublesome reality, and that is the people who are currently camping in the City of Kingston. They will all, one by one, be subject to traumatic eviction… We need to maintain the compassion for those unfortunate individuals,” Stroud remarked.
Council eventually voted 9-2 in favour of Option Five, with Stroud and Williamsville District Councillor, Jim Neill, as the two votes against. After opting out of a sanctioned encampment, Council then proceeded to approve a clause to resume its encampment protocol, which provides a framework for by-law officers to remove individual encampments from City property, “once alternative service options have been provided to individuals.” The protocol was paused last November alongside the rise of the COVID-19 Omicron variant wave in Kingston and its impact on the city’s homeless population.
The report initially called for the protocol to be amended to shorten the hours of notice from 48 to two, however, Council approved an additional amendment, raising the approved hours of notice to six. This means that authorities must give campers six hours notice before they can carry out an eviction.
Councillor Holland spoke out against the amendment. “We’ve heard a lot from members of the public on this subject, and many thought there was no reason to change from 48 at all… To make a decision like this, when, really, what we need to do is understand what the reality is for people who are unhoused in the community, and start to develop a way of assisting them through this encampment protocol.”
The encampment protocol amendments passed by a vote of 10-1, with Neill opposed. Members of Council then voted 7-3 in favour of a clause to resume the encampment protocol effective Friday, Jun. 30, 2022 — the next day — with Holland, Stroud, and Neill against.
Council also voted to direct City staff to prepare a public anti-nuisance by-law, meant to address some of the problematic behaviours observed in the downtown core in recent years. “Staff did receive a number of complaints from members of the public who were concerned about safety due to behaviours exhibited by certain individuals in public spaces, including on public sidewalks. Staff and Kingston Police have also received numerous reports of unprovoked, aggressive, and threatening behaviour resulting from incidents in the downtown core and City parks,” noted Solicitor Morley.
Finally, members of Council voted to have staff explore amendments to its by-law on the use of City streets, to better address the influx of shopping carts and other objects on downtown sidewalks. Following a proposed amendment from Councillor Holland, staff will “provide options to address shopping carts and other structures… and to present the proposed by-law to Council for consideration by November 10.”
Kingston City Council’s next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Jul. 12, 2022.