Toronto homeless, their supporters vow to fight charges in encampment clearings

Skylar Williams (FB Photo)

TORONTO ONT-Toronto should stop evicting homeless encampments and drop trespass charges against people who live in tents, the city’s homeless community and their supporters demanded Thursday.

They said the city should find a long-term solution to homelessness, suggesting all three levels of governments work together to create not-for-profit homes that will help ease the  housing crisis.

Dozens are facing charges and fines stemming from city operations this summer – assisted by police – to remove homeless encampments from four municipal parks.

“Stop criminalizing the homeless,” said Jennifer Jewell, who was an encampment resident for four months before the city offered her temporary shelter at a hotel.

Jewell, who uses a wheelchair, said she was assaulted and detained by officers during the clearing of an encampment at Lamport Stadium in July.

“I’ve been on waiting list for wheelchair accessible housing for 15 years,” she said at a news conference outside Mayor John Tory’s downtown condominium.

Four officers stood behind barricades protecting the entrance to the condo, with more officers on police horses standing a block away.

Skyler Williams, an Indigenous man who is the spokesman for the land reclamation camp known as 1492 Land Back Lane at a development site in Caledonia, Ont., said he came out to show his support for the homeless community.

He said about 40 per cent of encampment residents are Indigenous. “These are people who have witnessed more trauma than most,” he said.

“Let me be very clear to John Tory, whenever our people call out for help, whether in the bush or downtown, we’ll be there to support them no matter what because these are our people.”

Williams, a member of the Six Nations of the Grand River, faces two charges related to the occupation of McKenzie Meadows, a proposed housing development.

Shortly after speaking at Thursday’s news conference, he was arrested for failure to comply with recognizance. That prompted the crowd to move their protest to a nearby police station where Williams was being held.

Member of the homeless community and their supporters have said the police operations to clear the encampments left some with broken bones, concussions and cuts.

Police have said they were supporting city staff and carried out “enforcement” as a last resort.

On Thursday, police asked the public to help them identify eight people wanted for criminal offences in connection with protests at a July 21 encampment clearing. They said multiple people threw objects at officers and assaulted them.

Early in the pandemic, hundreds fled Toronto’s homeless shelters for fear of contracting COVID-19, setting up tents in parks throughout the city. The city maintains the shelter system is safe, and city council has passed a motion to end encampments.

Sima Atri, a lawyer representing some of those facing charges, said many will have their first appearance in court on Friday.

Jack, who lives in an encampment at Moss Park and did not want to give his last name due to fears of the police, said he has lived in a tent for a year.

He was arrested for trespassing at one of the encampment clearing operations, a charge he intends to fight.

Jack said he wants a home, not a spot in one of the city shelters.  Last year, he said, he was not prepared for the extremely cold winter.

“I was so cold I had to ride streetcars three hours a day to warm myself up,” he said. “I almost died, I just want some help, a place with walls and a roof, but there’s nothing available.”

Recent data obtained by The Canadian Press shows a significant rise in violent incidents in Toronto’s shelter system over the last five years.

The city said nearly 6,333 people who are experiencing homelessness were moved from the shelter system into permanent housing from April 2020 to July 2021, and more than 1,858 people staying in encampments have been referred to safe inside spaces.

A spokeswoman for the mayor questioned the choice of location for Thursday’s protest.

“I have no idea why anyone would organize a protest outside the mayor’s private home on a weekday while he is working at city hall _ a public place where people can and do come and protest,” said Lawvin Hadisi.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 16, 2021.

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