Following a close vote by Kingston City Council on Tues. Jan. 10, 2023, the City’s eviction of the Belle Park encampment has been put on hold until March.
Last week, City of Kingston bylaw officers issued Notices of Trespass to unhoused individuals residing in an encampment near Belle Park and the K&P Trail. Initially, the plan was to transition residents of the encampment to the City’s newly announced emergency shelter spaces. Residents of the encampment had until 5 p.m. on Jan. 11 to vacate the site.
However, due to a new motion approved at Tuesday’s council meeting, the eviction has been temporarily suspended, allowing residents to stay at the encampment until March. In approving the temporary moratorium on evictions, Council also voted to spend $149,000 on amenities for the encampment site, such as portable toilets, dumpsters, and security.
It should be noted that, with regard to this situation, the term ‘eviction’ refers to the enforcement of the City’s Encampment Protocol, which was reinstated by the previous council in June 2022, having been suspended by that same council earlier in the year. The encampments in question are within Belle Park, along the K&P Trail, and adjacent to Kingston’s Integrated Care Hub (ICH).
Tuesday’s meeting began with several delegations to Council, many of whom spoke in favour of putting a pause on the evictions. Justine McIsaac, a staff member at the ICH, spoke about the important life-saving work her organization has provided to encampment residents: “The relationships that we have spent… over the past two plus years [building] have allowed us to intervene with care and life-saving services… This potential eviction would disrupt people’s care and lead to the ultimate consequences of criminalization and death.”
McIsaac went on, “The people who live independently within the vicinity of the ICH do so because of the valid fear and imminent risk of death that they are genuinely facing every day. What I see just beyond the fence line is a village of people who are accepting of each other, despite their struggles. I see people who have committed to caring for each other and have continued to uphold these commitments to one another.”
According to McIsaac, having the encampment so close to the ICH has allowed her and her staff to intervene in times of need, such as when overdoses occur within the encampment community. “My peers and co-workers have responded to overdoses in places close to the clubhouse at Belle Park. When someone is not breathing, every second is detrimental,” a visibly emotional McIsaac said as she urged councillors to vote in favour of the motion to pause evictions.
“I ask Council, on this night, to show the most vulnerable population in this community that they matter… I ask that we have this eviction paused until further appropriate consultation with our unhoused neighbours [occurs], until there is adequate shelter for those that use substances, [and] until there is actual harm reduction [as well as] transitional housing that is safe for people. Any less will result in death.”
Following a question from Loyalist-Cataraqui District Councillor Paul Chaves, McIsaac confirmed that ICH staff have “responded to 1200 overdoses on and within the vicinity” of the ICH.
Council also heard from Dan Mitchell, a Mowhak man who had recently visited the encampment at Belle Park, and who chastised councillors for their response to Kingston’s housing and substance abuse crises. “What I see is disgusting. All the finances you people have wasted here tonight, and for what? Whatever happened to ‘lift up your fellow neighbour’? Let’s not get rid of them or try to get rid of the problem, let’s solve the problem. Let’s help them.”
Mitchell continued, “The first time I stepped foot at the [encampment] was last night. I went there with my wife, [and] I was heartbroken… How you people can sleep at night now [is] beyond me… Drugs [are] an issue: deal with it. Let’s stop moving them around the city. You know, I’m a Native. That’s my land, that’s not your land. You don’t have the right to kick them out of there.”
Not all delegates were in favour of the motion to pause the evictions, however. Tammy Lund, a neighbour of the ICH and the Belle park encampment who has addressed Council about this matter in the past, spoke about some of the ongoing issues at the site: “As a neighbour of the hub, there [are] also a lot of problems with the area… There’s a lot of tree cutting going on over in the Belle Park area, trees that should not be cut, and certainly should not be burned for firewood,” she said, referring to the contaminated ground on which the ICH and the encampments stand.
“Excessive noise still happens in the neighbourhood, [but] the neighbours have been more tolerant of it because we’re very empathetic to the struggles of the homeless people that are over there,” Lund continued.
“I’m opposed to the pause on the eviction. I think [the] eviction might be heavy-handed, but I certainly hope that the campers that can utilize the new services do utilize the new services that are being made available.”
After delegations were made by members of the public, the motion was put forward for debate, with Kingston’s 13-member Council clearly divided on the issue. King’s Town Councillor Gregory Ridge, the author of the motion, described his objection to the evictions as “multifaceted.”
“There is the humanitarian and ethical issue with regard to relocating people during these cold winter months. There’s an accessibility issue with regard to shelter spaces. I must say, the City’s done an excellent job in providing shelter spaces in such a small period of time,” Ridge said.
“Many of these shelter spaces are not accessible to members of the encampment who suffer from mental health and addiction issues, especially addiction issues around substance use,” continued Ridge. “As has been expressed multiple times by delegations, the barrier there is there’s no substance use in these shelter spaces. And so, effectively, there are many people who will be relocated and they will not be able to access the shelter spaces that the City has so admirably provided.”
Portsmouth District Councillor Don Amos, who spoke in favour of the motion, suggested the City should explore sanctioned encampment programs that are currently underway in other municipalities. “I know that there’s a program in Kitchener-Waterloo called ‘A Better Tent City.’ It’s a fantastic program, it works really well, and I think there’s programs out there that perhaps we need to look at in the same aspect as increasing the Integrated Care Hub… I think a pause will allow City staff to continue their research, to continue to look at other avenues.”
Before it was ultimately approved, the motion received amendments, which included official rules for encampment residents, as well as a clear direction for City staff to “undertake all necessary steps, including commencing any required court applications, to ensure that the encampment is removed after the March 21, 2023, deadline.”
“I think that everyone here shares the deep concern for this community and the deep issues that are happening here,” said Sydenham Councillor Conny Glenn, who put forth the motion to amend. “I’m gravely concerned about the residents that are currently in the encampment and the conditions under which they’re living. I really felt that the motion brought forward was a positive one. We need to take a pause, but we also must move forward, and this is something that I don’t see us doing quickly enough, with enough surety, and with enough conviction.”
Given that some encampment residents have expressed concerns over barriers currently in place at shelters owned and operated by the City, Councillor Glenn’s motion to amend also included a clause to direct staff to find “alternative solutions,” in order to permit substance use in certain City shelters. City of Kingston Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Lanie Hurdle noted that staff would likely explore options related to expanding ICH.
“The focus in terms of barriers… concerns substance use, primarily,” Hurdle said. “To be quite frank, I think probably the only option at this point would be a larger ICH where individuals could be within the building rather than outside in tents. But that would also mean that the ICH would need to relocate… because the current location only allows for 50 people.” Hurdle added that the City is currently attempting to identify a new location for the ICH, in partnership with the leaseholder, Addiction and Mental Health Services of Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox, and Addington (AMHS-KFLA).
Mayor Bryan Paterson cautioned that spending $149,000 in services for the encampment would essentially create a “sanctioned encampment,” something the previous council voted against in June 2022. “This is one of the things that the last council had to wrestle with. It’s very expensive to effectively have a sanctioned encampment. So, one of the things that we decided back in June is that it was better to direct those dollars to additional shelter spaces to be able to help more individuals,” Paterson said, also asking staff whether there was a different way the funding included in Glenn’s amendment could be spent.
“If the question is, could we find, in the short-term, alternative services for people that are camping around the ICH, I would say no,” Hurdle responded. “Whatever solution we re-direct the funds to would not be solutions that would be accessible for most people that are currently living at that encampment.”
The motion to amend passed by a vote of 12-1, as the debate returned to the main motion as amended. Next up to speak was Countryside Councillor Gary Oosterhof, who asked staff whether a delay would constitute an official sanctioning of the encampment on behalf of the City.
“In my view,” responded City Solicitor Jenna Morley, “there is a reasonable argument to be made that continued non-enforcement of the City’s by-law, with knowledge of the existing situation, is tantamount to sanctioning the encampment.”
In response to a question from Councillor Chaves regarding space at existing shelters, Ruth Noordegraaf, the City’s Director of Housing and Social Services, said staff feel “quite confident that we’ve done everything we can to add as many beds and capacity as possible.”
Councillor Brandon Tozzo of Kingscourt-Rideau District compared the current need for funding from upper levels of government to the work done to secure money for the third crossing, as he spoke in favour of pausing the evictions.
“Today I drove up Montreal Street, I drove past the ICH, and I drove even further and I saw the Waaban Crossing,” Tozzo said. “I saw what this community can do: we can lobby the federal government and the provincial government. We can build a bridge; let’s make sure no one sleeps under it.”
Collins-Bayridge Councillor Lisa Osanic suggested that eviction would “encourage as many people as possible to start to look at the shelters,” as she spoke out against the motion to pause. “Right now, with the way this motion is, we’re going to be encouraging people to stay out there, and [they] have two more months before [they] have to decide to move on.”
Following Osanic, Mayor Paterson took the floor, as he joined the chorus of voices opposed to pausing the evictions. “Can I stand behind a sanctioned encampment? Can I say, as mayor, I think that’s a solution? I can’t do that. That is what led me, last year, to come to the conclusion that encampments are not a solution… especially in the middle of winter.”
Instead of supporting a “sanctioned” encampment, Paterson said he would advocate for additional funding from upper levels of government. “There are other options we can explore. I will be front and centre in advocating for resources from the province and federal government that will help. But in the meantime, we have to understand what we will and will not be willing to sanction, and as mayor, I cannot sanction an encampment.”
After more than an hour of debate, the motion to pause the evictions until March 21, 2023, was passed, as amended, by a vote of 8-5 in favour of the moratorium, with Mayor Paterson and Councillors Osanic, Oosterhof, Pittsburgh’s Ryan Boehme, and Meadowbrook-Strathcona’s Jeff McLaren opposed.
Following the vote, a surprise new motion by Mayor Paterson spoke directly to sentiments raised by Councillor Tozzo earlier in the evening, as the mayor called for the declaration of a mental health and addictions crisis, and the need to formally request further funding from upper levels of government.