Councillor calls for bylaw review after Belle Park evictions

Photo inside the Belle Park encampment in July 2020. Photo by Samantha Butler-Hassan

City Councillor Mary Rita Holland is calling for more transparency around the outcomes for individuals experiencing homelessness in Kingston after they interact with City bylaw enforcement officers.

At the council meeting on Tuesday, Sep. 15, 2020, Holland will table a motion for a review of the City bylaw number 2009-76, which is at play when City staff investigate complaints of people creating a “nuisance or disturbance” on public property.

This bylaw allows Kingston residents to request City action whenever they suspect a homeless person of setting up camp on public property. However, Holland is concerned that there is no process to follow what happens to an individual after that interaction.

“This bylaw would allow for anyone to call and say ‘There’s someone in a park, and they’re bothering me,’” she said.

Increased public awareness of homelessness

City Councillor’s have received several mass emails from concerned constituents about homeless people downtown in recent weeks, Holland said. There seems to be “a public awareness of homelessness that maybe wasn’t there before,” she noted.

The once-City-supported encampment at Belle Park closed on Tuesday, Sep. 1, 2020. City bylaw officers removed the belongings of park residents and barred entry to the camping area, leaving several individuals who had been camping there reportedly looking for new places to go.

“There’s certainly a lot of [complaints] happening right now in the Kings Town district,” Holland said. “There are a lot of people who are concerned about activities happening around Artillery Park, [and] nearby on Barrack Street, near where Street Health is.”

When a bylaw officer goes to a park or public City space under these circumstances and determines that a person has no place to live, Holland said a Street Outreach team from Home Base Housing gets involved.

The City does not have any direct coordination with Street Outreach, or with people experiencing homelessness at all, she added. After that point, the City doesn’t have any information on where these individuals go.

“We need to have that information because we need to understand if people are able to move into some form of housing — whether it be emergency or supportive housing — or if, after that complaint process, they just sort of pick up and leave and go to another space,” she said.

“What we have heard anecdotally is that people are just moving. They’re moving into the woods or they’re moving into another space.”

Displaced Belle Park residents still on the move

Two former residents of Belle Park were reportedly evicted from at least two other outdoor spaces after the camp closed, including the vacant lot beside the former Beer Store on Cataraqui Street. One of those individuals is wheelchair-bound, and the two had been watching baseball games at Megaffin Park with other members of the community before being moved again.

“After what took place at Belle Park,” Holland said, “just in the days immediately following that, there were reports of people who had previously been there or who, in any case, were experiencing homelessness. Every time they tried to move to a different part of the City, in a green space or public space, they were told on a number of occasions that they needed to leave.”

“Activists involved at Belle Park… were reaching out and saying: What’s been going on is the City is essentially chasing people,” Holland said.

Besides providing better transparency on the aftermath of bylaw enforcement, she said she is also tabling the motion because she has concerns about how the decommissioning of Belle Park unfolded.

“We at Council set that in motion. We said, and Staff said, right from the beginning after initiating that timeline ‘there won’t be any forced evictions.’ I think that message was well-intended and in good faith. I think everyone did believe that if we put all of our effort into finding housing alternatives for people that they would be in housing by the end of July, or that they would be happy with the transition to Artillery Park.”

When people were still camping in Belle Park on Monday, Sep 1, Holland said City staff followed direction and removed them and their belongings.

“There was just such a disconnect between what members of the public thought might happen, and then what did happen,” she said. “I think this might be an opportunity to reflect on that, but also to get information from Staff that would allow us to preempt going down one road when really the intention of the community was that we not do that.”

Her motion notes that the eviction contravened the UN’s National Protocol on Homeless Encampments in Canada, which prohibits forced evictions.

“There’s been some back and forth with my colleagues about including references to that document [in the motion],” she said. “It’s not a governing source in some ways. We’re not governed by the UN, but it is a document that’s relevant to the issue and its very much human rights based.”

Kingston’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kieran Moore, has also referenced the Protocol on Homeless Encampments in Canada as a framework for addressing the challenges of homelessness in the community.

“Frankly we can’t argue with human rights. I think a human rights approach is the only approach,” Holland said.

Holland’s motion calls for a review of bylaw 2009-76 by the City’s Housing and Homelessness Committee, of which she is a member, as part of their Shelter Services Review. She’s also asking staff to provide a report to the Housing and Homelessness Committee with information on how an individuals who do not access shelter services are currently supported, how supports are funded and administered, and recommendations on which policies or procedures need to be amended to ensure the City of Kingston can meet the United Nations Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada.

She’s requesting the report by no later than June 2021, in time for next summer’s camping season. The motion is seconded by Councillor Peter Stroud.

Update: On Tuesday, Sep. 15, 2020, Council voted in favour of the motion, with an amendment to remove reference the United Nation’s National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada. Councillor Simon Chapelle voted against the motion.

Samantha Butler-Hassan, Local Journalism Initiative

Samantha Butler-Hassan is a staff writer and life-long Kingston resident. She is a news junkie and mom who loves reading and exploring the community. This article has been made possible with the support of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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