Special Council meeting sees encampment protocol paused

Content warning: This article contains quotes with strong language and profanity.

Kingston City Council convened for a special meeting Thursday night, May 12, 2022, to discuss the encampment of homeless citizens around the Integrated Care Hub (ICH) and in Belle Park. A motion recommending a continued pause on the City’s Encampment Protocol, allowing those encamped on City property to remain pending research by City staff, passed by a vote of 12 to one. 

Belle park encampment in 2020. Photo by Samantha Butler-Hassan.

The over four-hour meeting saw delegations from citizens of all walks of life and included much conversation and debate with the common goal of helping the campers while respecting their unique challenges and intrinsic dignity, and improving the safety of the situation for all those in the vicinity.

Questioned by Councillor Jeff McLaren, the City’s Chief Administrative Officer, Lanie Hurdle, clarified that there are technically two different properties with encampments in the discussion: Belle Park, which is City-owned, and the ICH property at 661 Montreal Street, which is only leased to the City by BPE Development. Therefore, continuing the pause on the Encampment Protocol would only apply to those currently camping in Belle Park.

McLaren further stated, “My understanding is that the property owner of the Integrated Care Hub is under some legal jeopardy here and needs to have the campers on the property removed.” This led him to question what would happen if campers remained at 661 Montreal Street, jeopardizing the terms of the City’s lease.

Hurdle answered, “Based on my conversations with the property owner, if the City was not compliant [in moving the campers], the property owner will be looking at cancelling the lease, which means that we would need to find another location, probably fairly quickly, if we wanted to minimize disruption of services for the Integrated Care Hub. I do not know what that ideal location would be.”

“I do want to point out to City Council, though, that we’re not sure that there are currently actual tents on the 661 Montreal Street property,” Hurdle continued. “There are some in the area, but we have to look at the property line: there may not be any that are currently on the actual 661 Montreal Street property. But we have already had discussions with partners [at HIV/AIDS Regional Services and Kingston Health Services Street Outreach program], and they understand the situation and would be willing to work with us to relocate any [campers] if there were any on private property.”

The importance for some individuals of living very close to the ICH was eloquently explained by Justine McIsaac, co-ordinator of Consumption and Treatment Services (CTS) at the ICH, who advocated for allowing the campers to remain close to the site to prevent drug poisoning deaths. McIsaac spoke passionately about the work the ICH does, and the lives it has saved since its opening.

“We have witnessed firsthand the devastating impacts of the drug poisoning and housing crisis that has destroyed the lives of our unhoused neighbours, [and which] has only deepened during the pandemic over the last two years,” she said.

Councillors listen to Mayor Bryan Paterson during a special meeting of Kingston City Council on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Screen captured image.

Furthermore, McIsaac said, “The possibility of being relocated further away from the ICH presents a further risk of harm or death for people … when someone is not breathing, every second is detrimental. We see the consequences of noxious brain injuries every day, due to the lack of oxygen to the brain during an overdose. The [close encampment] allows us early intervention to [provide] emergency support.”

McIsaac explained that the relationships formed between staff, volunteers, and the unhoused in the vicinity of the ICH have been essential in saving many people from criminalization, drug poisonings, and death. “What I see just beyond the fence line is a village of people who are accepting of each other, despite their struggles,” she said. “I see people who have committed to caring for each other and have continued to uphold these commitments. We as a community, however, have fallen short in the commitments we have made to improve housing inequality.”

She talked about the challenges that unhoused people face, something people can’t understand unless they’ve experienced it firsthand: “The winters are long, spaces are crowded and stressful for people. For some people, maintaining independence while remaining a part of the community in frigid conditions is the only option they have to maintain their sanity. A tent next to the ICH [with access to basic human essentials such as food, bathroom facilities, showers, and community] seems far more appealing to some people than any of the options we have managed to provide them.”

Her final statement — “I hope that the value of people’s lives has not become lost on us all. I ask this council on this night to show the most vulnerable population and the community that they matter” — was echoed by most of the delegates.

From another perspective, Tammy Lunn, whose property backs onto the Belle Park encampment, expressed her “disappointment with the city council for once again putting forth motions and preparing to cast votes that will directly affect my life, my health, my safety, my peaceful enjoyment of my home and my community without consulting the community that’s involved.”

Though she sympathized greatly with the people living in the encampment, she made clear that there are safety concerns for everyone living in the area due to some individuals living in or frequenting the encampments, whom she referred to as “the criminal element,” who are making the situation untenable.  She stated, “I have never been so torn over any issue in a very, very long time. I know some of these people [in the encampment]. I grew up with many of them. Some of them are children of people I grew up with, and some of them are even family members of mine who are there. I see the good in the ICH, but I also see the negative of the ICH and what infuriates me is that people don’t see our side of it … There has to be some balance here. I don’t know what the answer is.”

Lunn described multiple instances of theft from her property, violent incidents, and vandalism, saying, “I feel victimized. Before I figured out who it was who broke into my shed, [I would look into] that field, and I’d see 50 people that were potential criminals to me, and I don’t like feeling that way. I don’t like feeling insecure. I don’t like feeling threatened. I don’t like feeling like my home is unsafe.” 

She also alleged a lack of support by Kingston police: “Police don’t do a thing other than issue an incident report … Am I supposed to go over there and tell them to give me my stuff back and potentially take an axe in the head? … It infuriates me that our police department will do nothing to enforce these laws.” 

“You people don’t see it,” Lund asserted. “I invite every member of the City Council to come down here unannounced, pitch a tent in that field over there and spend a weekend. Experience what we’re experiencing as neighbours, people who live within 100 yards of that place. Experience what business owners are experiencing when you’ve got people setting fires on your property … Experience what it’s like when you’ve got to come in and pick up shit and piss and vomit off your loading dock … Don’t sit in your chambers there or your houses in the west end and tell us what it’s like living here … You don’t know at all.”

Tammy Lunn (inset) speaks to Kingston City Council. Screen captured image.

Multiple councillors indicated support for including neighbours of the ICH being actively canvassed as research continues, and amended the evening’s motions to include them in consultation going forward.

Councillor Lisa Osanic raised the continuing problem with the current ICH site and Belle Park, both of which are considered contaminated lands, being the site of railway lines and a former landfill site, and not meant for residential use. City staff, as part of the work looking at the continued encampments on City property, would therefore need to continue to assess these risks.

Before the final vote proceeded, CAO Hurdle raised a point of clarification “to make sure that it is clear for Council and the public … although we will not be enforcing the encampment protocol, if there are health and safety issues, fire safety issues where we’re directed by the fire department to take some action, that we would do that. I just want to make sure that’s clear, in case something was to happen three weeks from now and people are wondering why the City is taking those actions.”

Effectively, the final vote was to pause the encampment protocol in favour of temporarily creating an “allowed encampment” or encampments on City property.

The motion, moved by Councillor Jim Neill and seconded by Councillor Robert Kiley, passed. Thus, the current plans for eviction were postponed until there is a clear alternative to find a more permanent and safe housing option for the campers, to be shared with Council by end of the third quarter of 2022, if not before. 

A second motion, moved by Councillor Peter Stroud and seconded by Deputy Mayor Gary Oosterhof, also passed. This motion directed City staff to consult with KFL&A Public Health, the ICH, residents in the vicinity of any potential pilot location(s), and as many vulnerable unhoused citizens currently sleeping in Belle Park and their advocates as possible. This consultation would hopefully identify a safe location or locations that could allow for a six-month pilot of a temporary encampment for those seeking this type of temporary shelter. Also, staff would investigate what temporary low-cost facilities are needed at an allowed encampment to better aid the health and safety of those settled there. A set of very simple regulations that are reasonable and allow for the safe and tidy use of the land would be posted at the perimeter of this identified area and would need to be followed in exchange for the use of the land.

Staff are to report back before the end of the pilot, with findings and recommendations on next steps to help vulnerable and homeless individuals in Kingston. 

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