The City of Toronto has spent months devising plans to remove about two dozen people from a homeless encampment in a popular park last summer, building files on those living there and implicating hundreds of municipal workers in the process, internal documents reveal.
The details are contained in thousands of pages obtained by activists through freedom of information laws.
City documents, shared with The Canadian Press, reveal the scale of the cleanup effort at Trinity Bellwoods Park – an operation that took place last June and ended up turning violent.
Homeless encampments began popping up in Toronto in March 2020 as hundreds of people fled shelters for fear of contracting COVID-19. Some residents said they felt safer outdoors and sought the sense of community generated by encampments.
At the end of 2020, there were more than 50 encampments across Toronto, according to the documents. The city had won a court battle that upheld a bylaw banning camping in Toronto parks and was beginning to focus on taking action against what it called the “big four” encampments – including Trinity Bellwoods.
As of December 2020, documents indicate that the city was working to negotiate with encampment residents and their supporters, hoping to form an “encampment talk table.”
Chris Brillinger, Executive Director of Family Services Toronto, acted as a volunteer mediator between the two parties and wrote to city staff on December 29, 2020.
“You need a full-time facilitator/mediator for a period of two to three months to get things done,” he wrote. “The community needs help getting organized. It is largely made up of physically and emotionally exhausted frontline staff and volunteers.
Tracey Cook, deputy city manager, responded within an hour.
“There is definitely one thing that I immediately see that we all have in common… City staff are also emotionally and physically drained.”
In early January 2021, bureaucrats began formulating plans to clear the four large encampments.
On Jan. 7, 2021, Mayor John Tory’s chief of staff emailed Cook, saying that she and her colleague “hope to meet with you within the next two weeks to discuss encampments and specifically our plan. for spring. The mayor started asking…”
On Jan. 22, Cook emailed the mayor’s office and city manager a PowerPoint presentation titled “Campwork – Proposed Next Steps.”
He noted that the city plans to work in “parallel buckets” — engaging with encampment residents and their supporters while also planning to clean up parks in April.
“We’re all concerned about encampments in the spring,” the presentation said. “We’ve identified the highest priority parks based on risk and impact, and we need to create a plan and timeline for how we’re going to operate those parks.”
Talks between the city and homeless advocates broke down in February when the city announced it had filed an injunction against Khaleel Seivwright, a carpenter making “small shelters” for the homeless. The defenders felt betrayed, the emails show.
During this time, the camp cleaning plan is gradually becoming clearer.
City documents show staff planned to post trespassing notices at encampments that would be enforceable within 72 hours.
“We are working with the idea of providing smoother communication to people in the encampment and following up with a legal posting after we voluntarily moved several of them,” wrote Dan Breault, the city’s encampment case manager, to the mayor’s chief of staff. March 2, 2021.
The city also had information about each resident of the encampment in a confidential document titled “Trinity Bellwoods Analysis.”
A resident of the encampment was deemed “most likely to degenerate”, the filing noting that he “is still on site and there is a great mess around the encampment that he claims to be making art with”.
Another resident was said to be ‘non-confrontational and likely to leave when told’, while the filing said another individual ‘will not respond well if rushed, but will leave the site if he has to leave in time. appropriate”.
Several others were considered violent, the city said, and would pose risks to staff.
A note in the operational plan stated that one person “frequently escalates verbally to city personnel; Walks around carrying a stick (long pole); and has told many city employees that he knows karate and is “not afraid to use it”. This individual, the city said, “speaks very strongly about the ‘war’ against the city.”
In a statement this week, spokesman Brad Ross said the city maintains documented records of camp residents “to ensure they are providing the appropriate services that meet their unique needs as well as access to interior space”.
The city has also compiled aerial maps of all tents in the park, each identified by number and linked to each resident.
AJ Withers, co-founder of FactCheckToronto.ca, the homeless advocacy group that was involved in sharing the documents with The Canadian Press, said records indicate the city negotiated with homeless people in bad faith. .
“The mass evictions they were planning at Trinity Bellwoods were really designed to fail,” Withers said in an interview.
“They had this massive surveillance program of Trinity Bellwoods Park residents which shows very clearly that they knew people would react badly if rushed… They set up a powder keg and, unsurprisingly, it exploded.
The city finally took action in Trinity Bellwoods in June, weeks after a failed clean-up operation at Lamport Stadium Park, where a large crowd showed up to support camp residents in a standoff with police .
On June 22, 2021, staff showed up early in the morning at Trinity Bellwoods with over 100 hired security guards and fencing was erected around two camp areas. Residents, many of whom said they live with mental health and addictions issues, were told they had two hours to pack up and accept an offer at the hotel or check out. Some were in crisis that day.
Several clashes eventually broke out between the police and the homeless people and their supporters. A battle broke out over a fence which supporters tried to pull down as police fought to keep it upright. Another skirmish broke out when police dropped pepper spray, which inadvertently hit several security guards, the documents show.
The riot squad intervened towards the end of the day, once most of the crowd had dispersed, and cleared the park.
Ross said the fence was erected to protect city workers and said protesters were preventing staff from doing their jobs. Those protesters were warned, he said, and when they didn’t leave, the city called Toronto police to clear the area.
The city, Ross said, has taken “extraordinary steps to help homeless people” and is trying to strike a balance between homelessness and the community.
“The city’s response to encampments takes into consideration the health and well-being of those living outside and the needs of the wider community,” he said. “The city cannot force people to come in and take advantage of the many services offered by the city, but living in a camp in a city park is unhealthy and illegal.
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