Mixed reactions to $1,500 raised for wooden shelters at Belle Park
Two Kingston residents have raised $1,500 for lumber and building supplies for the campers at Belle Park, despite the looming deadline for their occupancy of Friday, Jul. 31. Tabassum Pasha and Christina Zheng, both fourth-year commerce students at Queen’s University, met their fundraising goal on GoFundMe.com in just under three days.
Pasha said a speech she heard at the rally for Belle Park campers on Tuesday, Jul. 7 motivated the fundraiser.
“It was something that [one of the park residents] Maggie said that got me thinking,” Pasha said. “She said ‘We can take good care of ourselves. If the community can drop off wood, who knows, maybe we can make a shelter.’ That is what got me thinking.”
Pasha returned to the park following the rally to speak to campers, and to ask if a fundraiser would be helpful. She said she believes the built structures will make it harder for the City to evict Belle Park’s residents without other housing in place.
“My perspective on it is that it doesn’t seem very humane, or right, for the city to demolish shelters that we have built with the support of the community, without them actually having plans in place for housing,” she said.
Belle Park has served as a temporary, city-approved site for unhoused campers since the end of April. Individuals started camping on City property in late March, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of other local services, and introduced stringent public health measures in shelters.
The City temporarily amended a by-law against camping on public property specifically to allow camping at Belle Park. That by-law exemption has expired and been renewed twice. The July 31 deadline lines up with the full-time opening of a 24-hour integrated service hub at Artillery Park.
Since April, the camp has grown to over 30 full-time residents, with others visiting daily for drop-in services. The City has provided portable washrooms, access to power and running water in the city-owned Clubhouse, as well on-site testing for COVID-19 and other infections in partnership with Kingston Frontenac Lennox & Addington (KFL&A) Public Health. Outreach workers from Home Base Housing’s street outreach team stop by twice daily to provide food, supplies and other social support services. Kingston’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore has inspected the park, and KFL&A health inspectors monitor it regularly. Several city councillors and the mayor have also made visits to the park.
Meanwhile, some homeowners in the area are calling for the camp to be removed complaining of noise, theft, garbage and other incidents.
Fundraiser wording ‘problematic’
The City of Kingston has confirmed that power will be disconnected and portable washrooms will be removed from Belle Park during the first week of August. According to the City, the Clubhouse washrooms will remain open as they normally are during summer.
City Councillor Mary Rita Holland, a member of the City’s Housing and Homelessness Advisory Committee, said occupants do not need to worry about support ending July 31st, as the 24-hour service hub will be operating at full-capacity by then.
“There is a firm opening for the overnight services from Artillery Park, and that will be July 31,” Holland said. “I know that there is some concern that there is nowhere to go, and that partly what prompted the fundraising campaign. But every single person who wants to be housed overnight with all the services at Artillery Park will have that option on the 31st.”
She also said that the suggestion of forced removal by the City is misleading.
“There is some reference to the City removing people by force which I think is really problematic,” she said, adding that the City has made it very clear that there will be no forceful removal.
“We keep hearing from community advocates that residents at Belle Park don’t have enough information, and they’re very fearful, and that is terrible,” she said. “This is all new. We have different groups involved trying to communicate as best we can, but it is certainly not helpful to have people who are in direct communication with campers perpetuate [misinformation]. That is a fear, but it is not based in fact.”
Holland said there will very likely be dismantling of structures. “I’m not even allowing my mind to go there, because I’ve been hoping this whole time that this transition would happen really organically and peacefully,” she said.
“Of course the bylaw enforcement team will have the ability to remove materials from the site. But it’s not helpful to ask the community for help, with a fundraising pitch essentially saying ‘we have to protect these people from the City.’ I think that went a little bit too far.”
Pasha said the residents at the camp refer to Artillery Park as a “cooling centre,” and did not seem to feel it would meet their needs.
“This is a solution they requested,” Pasha said. “This is coming from Nathan, Maggie, Lee, Rick and all of the other folks that have been at Belle Park for a pretty long time now.”
She returned to the park on the evening of Thursday, July 23, once the fundraising goal was reached, to reconfirm plans with the campers. She said the discussion is still very much focused on purchasing building materials.
“Is it temporary? Yes. Is it a band-aid? Yes,” she added. “The only solution for this is affordable housing, and moving people into safe, supportive housing.”
Holland echoed that statement, but added that the situation is complex. “We have people camping in other parts of the city, not just Belle Park,” she said. “We have a social housing waitlist of 1,300 people.”
In the mean time, she described the Artillery Park hub as a step towards a more inclusive and responsive model of service delivery for the future.
“We’ve already heard from staff at other agencies that this model is what we have needed all along. Belle Park has accelerated the process of moving towards an integrated services model,” she said.
The Artillery Park services hub will be in place until September 30, at which point Holland said she expects it to move it to a permanent location. “Pretty much right away our CAO said that the intention would be to have something in place in the longer term… We won’t see all that go away.”
‘A very humane gesture’
Holland said she believes the fundraiser was motivated from a very good place. “It’s a very humane gesture,” she said. “I think there’s such a desire to help and I think many people feel that. But I don’t know that that is the best option at the moment.”
When asked if she thought the structures would be a disincentive for the residents from moving on, Pasha said no.
“It’s not that they want to live in Belle Park,” she said. “They are tiring of moving from one unsafe place to another unsafe place. I think that Belle Park is the first place that a lot of them have felt safe in a long time.”
She said residents just don’t want to be forced to move before they have another stable and supportive option on the table. “I don’t think anyone wants to stay in Belle Park forever,” she said.
Pasha said residents are prepared for the inevitability of shelters coming down.
“When I was speaking to Nathan and the other folks, we were talking about ‘What’s going to happen if this gets demolished? What are we going to do?’ Nathan said ‘What can we do? If the City is going to come in and take it down, then the City is going to come in and take it down.’ But if they do that,” Pasha said, “there’s going to be a lot of public anger.”
When asked if she was concerned about the opinions of nearby homeowners, who may not welcome the construction of wooden shelters in the park, she said she was not sure what the majority opinion on the matter was.
“I don’t know if more people are angry about the fact that there are people camping out in Belle Park right now, or if there are more people angry that the City hasn’t done anything to move them into housing,” she said.
Kingstonist has reached out to the City with inquiries about whether or not building structures at Belle Park would be allowed, if it would violate any bylaws, or if Kingston Fire and Rescue would have any concerns from a health and safety perspective.
“The construction of wooden structures on the city-owned Belle Park property would be a violation under the provincial Trespass to Property Act,” said Brad Joyce, Commissioner of Corporate Services for the City of Kingston.
“Depending on several factors, the Ontario Building Code could also be applicable. The City will continue to monitor and assess any events that take place at Belle Park,” he continued. “The City remains committed to cooperative transition, by working with City partners to provide interim solutions and support to individuals, while longer-term housing solutions are sought. Through close cooperation with community partners, at least 12 individuals, formerly living at Belle Park, have found housing solutions.”