Just over a week ago, vulnerable Kingstonians situated in tents at the Memorial Centre barns were left – quite literally – out in the cold.
At approximately 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, November 14, 2021, just as wet and freezing weather conditions formed, the electricity supply to the barn, reportedly coming from the Church Athletic League facility within the Memorial Centre, was suddenly cut off. So too, as a result, were the two 400-watt space heaters within the barns. Moments later, several of those living in the barns emerged to investigate the cause of the power loss. For Kristin, whose last name is being withheld for privacy reasons, attempting to find out more about the power failure to her tent had harrowing consequences.
“A Napanee cop was here with a bunch of kids and he actually assaulted me,” Kristin said, holding back tears. “It’s on the camera at Memorial Centre. He grabbed me and started trying to wrestle me away because I was just trying to talk to [the Church Athletic League staff] and to get our electricity back on, because I was sick and freezing to death.”
Kristin said that the police officer in question appeared to be off duty at the time, but did briefly show her a badge and identified himself as an Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officer from Napanee. She said the man then assaulted her with intent to persuade her to return from the parking lot outside the Church Athletic League Centre to her nearby tent. Kristin recounted that the man didn’t make any attempt to help her or any other homeless individuals on the property find heat or to restore their power. Representatives at the Lennox and Addington County Detachment of the OPP would not provide comment on the alleged assault.
Kristin explained that, in the hours that followed, more police came to the grounds from Kingston, and that she and the other unhoused people on site pleaded with Kingston Police officers to help restore electricity and life-sustaining heat. Instead, Kristin said said, she and her neighbours were harassed about the possibility of active arrest warrants, yelled at, laughed at, and ordered to remain in their tents for the rest of the evening.
Kingston Police did not respond to requests for confirmation of their attendance to the Memorial Centre or comment on the allegations.
On the part of the City of Kingston, which owns and operates the Memorial Centre, Ryan Evoy, Acting Manager of Recreation Facilities, stated in an email to Kingston homeless advocate and CEO of Our Livable Solutions, Chrystal Wilson, “I am unsure who had [the electricity] turned off. A breaker/fuse could have been blown, I noticed heaters were plugged in and being used the other day. This is not permittable [sic] as this is a health and safety risk.”
Wilson said that it was “alarming and ironic” to see a representative of The City prioritize hypothetical health and safety risks over the very real and immediate health and safety risk of people becoming ill or dying from sub-zero temperatures, but she lamented that the attitude was ”all-too-common ” when it came to positions of privilege and empathy for the homeless. Wilson also mentioned she thinks the barns at the Memorial Centre are “an ideal location for some sleeping cabins,” given that people try to find shelter there as it is, and that the barns are already underutilized, “to keep people safe.”
Ryan Evoy did not return requests for information about the matter.
Barry Badour, advisor for Our Livable Solutions, was also present and suffering with pneumonia during the power shut-off, his shelter being among the tents to lose essential heat as a result.
“Not all of us have homes and we are out here because we don’t have homes,” said Badour. ”No matter what anyone thinks, we aren’t here by choice. We’re out here in the freezing cold weather because no other option exists. So when you have people trying to make you leave by taking away your only source of heat instead of offering to help… what does that say about those people? You can’t do that and be a good person at the same time. That’s not how it works.”
Wilson said that during the evening of November 14, the power to the tents was still off when she had arrived at the barn grounds to check in on the people sheltering there. It was then that she contacted facilities staff and management in an attempt to persuade them to restore power but was unsuccessful. Power to the barns remained off for much of the week.
However, on Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, the City of Kingston’s Department of Housing and Social Services said that power to the barns had been restored, maintaining that the outage appears to have been caused by a tripped breaker.
“The interruptions to power in those buildings appear to be the result of individuals plugging additional appliances into the electrical system and tripping the breaker,” the City said in an email.
But people living in the tents at Memorial Centre Barns claim that two portable heaters were the only electric appliances that they owned aside from cellphone chargers, and that even their chargers were not plugged in at the time of the power cut. A Kingston-based electrician who agreed to speak on the matter under anonymity claimed that the loss of power being accidentally caused by a breaker or fuse trip is so unlikely that it is “laughable.”
“If these are 400-watt portable space heaters, that’s about 100 less wattage than your standard hot plate, and about 1,000 less watts than an air fryer. If a building that size can keep Christmas lights on at 0.5 watts per bulb, they can power about 5 or 6 small space heaters without any issue,” he said, noting he has been an electrician for approximately 20 years.
The City’s email went on to state, “Staff continue to monitor the situation with the objective of minimizing the threat to human life posed by a potential electrical issue and will continue to work with Public Health authorities.”
As for whether those who are sheltering in the old barns at the Memorial Centre – which are typically used during the Kingston Fall Fair for livestock storage and care – are being allowed to remain there, the City implied that they are, and that the bylaws in place that would prohibit such activity are currently lifted.
“To minimize the spread of COVID-19, the Encampment Protocol has been temporarily paused. This decision was made in consultation with KFL&A Public Health and will help assist with contact tracing. Street Outreach will continue to meet with individuals at the Memorial Centre,” representatives from the City of Kingston said.
Still, for those attempting to shelter at the barns, the situation and the incident — whatever it may have been — that led to the loss of electricity point to a much larger and insufferable issue.
“I’m now at the point in my life where I just want to give up on everything. I have no hope,” Kristin expressed candidly.
“They shut the electricity off on us, and they don’t care. We’re low-lives to them. We are nothing to them. They don’t see us as people.”