The following is a letter to the editor. The views and opinions expressed in this letter do not necessarily reflect those of Kingstonist.
We are a group of physicians and health professionals who have been concerned about the situation at Belle Park tent encampment over the past few months. As you know, next Tuesday, July the 7th, is the date when council has officially proposed the eviction of people from Belle Park.
How we treat the most marginalized members of our community reflects who we are as a City and what we stand for. At present, there is no significant or meaningful harm being done by the Belle Park settlement, and there is a lot of benefit – this issue has mobilized the community, has brought partners together to support people experiencing homelessness as well as the City’s response to homelessness, and most importantly has created community and a sense of agency for people experiencing homelessness in Kingston. The Belle Park encampment provides a space where health and social services can be provided, which Public Health can monitor in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and where residents feel their physical and emotional health and security are better than in isolation.
While we appreciate that the City is working with HIV/AIDS Regional Services (HARS) and Street Health Centre (KCHC) to develop a low barrier cooling center, and while this may meet the needs of some Belle Park residents, the residents have made it very clear that this will not meet the needs of all residents, and that they want the ability to remain where they are, while they work with the City and housing supports to find permanent housing. Monday, 8 days from a proposed eviction deadline, City staff were still not able to tell residents how many people could be accommodated in a cooling center, what the rules would be, what would happen in the case of a COVID-19 outbreak, what would happen to their possessions if they attended this center, or what would happen to those who would not or could not be accommodated by this center (ie whether they would be evicted from Belle Park).
This leaves City Council with four options, each of which has significant health implications for Belle Park residents:
- Council could go ahead with proposed eviction for July 7. Should this proceed, many residents would relocate to spaces which are less secure than Belle Park, either in the woods or elsewhere in the community, with access to fewer services, and at greater risk of physical harm, theft, and sexual violence. These concerns have already been identified to City staff by residents, some of whom have faced repeated displacements over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic prior to arriving at Belle Park.
- Council could avoid the issue, essentially pushing it forward to a date a few days or weeks down the line, without providing clear messaging to Belle Park residents but without proceeding with eviction. This may be the most likely outcome. It will resolve little and will continue to perpetuate the health effects of stress, anxiety and insecurity of the residents as well as the community mobilization around the perpetual threat of eviction. It also places residents in an adversarial position with respect to the City which limits their ability to engage in collaborative solutions.
- Council could move to formally allow the continued presence of residents camping at Belle Park for an indefinite period. This is in line with what other jurisdictions, such as London Ontario, have done. City staff would be expected to continue to work with partners to find alternative housing that is preferable to Belle Park residents in addition to the aforementioned cooling center. Partners would continue to provide support for residents on site. The Belle Park community which has formed and which has provided support to residents, would be allowed to continue without threat of eviction, and residents could engage meaningfully with the City to find long term solutions.
- Council could come forward, proactively, with a motion to recognize the UN National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada, which would position the Council as in support of the human rights and dignity of people experiencing homelessness and as acknowledging the structural aspects that have produce homelessness in the first place. This would require Council to recognize that forced eviction is not consistent with a rights based approach, and to continue to actively support Belle Park residents in finding housing that is acceptable to them, recognizing that this takes time, and that solutions will vary for different people. This is the option for which we advocate.
This is an important choice. How we treat the most marginalized members of our community reflects who we are. Obviously, the Belle Park tent encampment is not a long term solution, and long term solutions to the housing and homelessness crises in our City need to be worked on. However threatening people with eviction is an unacceptable strategy that is not consistent with what we want our City to be.
Dr Eva Purkey, Department of Family Medicine, Queen’s University
Dr Susan Bartels, Department of Emergency Medicine, Queen’s University Dr Nazik Hammad, Department of Oncology, Queen’s University
Dr Imaan Bayoumi, Department of Family Medicine, Queen’s University Dr Rupa Patel, Kingston Community Health Centres
Dr Shayna Watson, Department of Family Medicine, Queen’s University Dr Rosemary Wilson, School of Nursing, Queen’s University
Dr Amrita Roy, Department of Family Medicine, Queen’s University
Dr Meghan Wilson, Department of Family Medicine, Queen’s University Dr Louise Good, Kingston Health Sciences Centre