7:34Listen to Toronto spokesperson Brad Ross talk to As It Happens host Carol Off
A Toronto city spokesperson says the massive police and security presence at a downtown park was meant to protect city workers and people living in tents in case protests turned violent.
Dozens of police officers and private security guards turned up at Trinity Bellwoods Park on Tuesday with vehicles, drones, security fencing and other equipment to evict 20 to 25 people living in a homeless encampment.
At first, the park’s residents refused to leave, arguing the city’s shelter system is unsafe. Their supporters formed a human chain around the encampment.
By evening, the residents agreed to leave after the city promised to find them permanent housing, an outreach worker told CBC News. Police say three people were arrested.
Toronto spokesperson Brad Ross spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of their conversation.
Are you satisfied with how things went down at Trinity Bellwoods Park yesterday?
I don’t think anybody is satisfied that we had to have a police presence, and the protests that we saw in Trinity Bellwoods Park.
We are happy that there were no injuries. It’s unfortunate that there were three arrests. But our sole objective yesterday was to encourage people to come inside to accept the services and supports that are on offer.
To encourage people to do that, you had … many dozens of armed police, many in tactical gear. They had trucks. They had cruisers. They had security fencing. You had more police on horseback. You had drones flying overhead. You had a private security company with more than 100 people there.
So this was an extraordinary show of force for a group of people in tents that numbered no more than a few dozen at its largest. So why would you call that “encouraging” people to go and get shelter?
The … people experiencing homelessness in the encampments weren’t the concern with respect to people’s safety. It was the protesters. And the experience we had several weeks ago … with the clearing of the encampment at Lamport Stadium was met with protest and, unfortunately, with violence. I don’t speak for the police, but I know that when they do their operational plans, they do so in a way that is proportionate to the potential response that they may get, and that we may get.
And this was a city-led operation. The fencing was brought in by the city to protect both the encampment occupants as well as city staff.
To protect the encampment occupants? How did that protect them?
The fencing was to ensure that our staff — the streets, the homes and the outreach workers — could engage with people who were staying in the encampment to let them know that the trespass notices that were posted 10 days ago yesterday were being enforced, and that we would encourage them to to pack their belongings and to come inside. And if they chose not to, that was fine, that is their right, but that we would be clearing that encampment today.
They’ve been living there for a year. So if that’s all you were doing, you were just trying to help them, why didn’t you offer that over a year ago when the people started moving into this park and the other parks in Toronto?
We have been. In fact, we’ve had more than 20,000 engagements with people who have been living outside, encouraging them to come inside. We’ve expanded the shelter system because of COVID-19 to ensure we had physical distance, including additional hotel rooms and adding hotel rooms so that they could come inside.
The [encampment residents] that were interviewed yesterday made it very clear that they’re not going to the shelter system [because] they are overcrowded. They are dangerous. The women who were interviewed yesterday described the physical violence that they have encountered.
There is sickness. There are drugs. These are horrible environments. And nobody wants to live in a tent in a park, but if that’s better than what you’re offering, how can you fault them for that?
I suppose we would have to agree to disagree, then, on what is safer. An encampment is also a very unsafe place to be. There are drugs. There is criminality with respect to sexual predators that come into the encampments — not the homeless people themselves, but others who come into the encampments. There are fires. We’ve had 114 fires this year alone, nine in the last two weeks in encampments. There is debris and other combustibles.
There are fires in the shelters. I’m sure you know about the disabled woman on the 15th floor of that place in the winter who was left behind during a fire in a [hotel] homeless shelter. Do you think that might be on their minds when they decide they don’t want to live there?
The difference here is that the shelters are in buildings and hotels that have fire suppression and have fire systems.
I’m familiar with the incident [of] which you speak. And that’s a whole separate matter. But people are safer inside.
A woman [who lived in the park] yesterday was saying it could be 10 years … trying to get housing because there isn’t any in Toronto, right?
Actually, since mid-December of 2020, more than 244 new affordable and supportive units have been built. There are 82 projects in the city’s pipeline right now. And in the next 12 months, more than 1,200 new permanent and supportive housing opportunities will be ready for occupancy.
We’ve just announced the partnership with the University Health Network and United Way of Greater Toronto for 51 modular, supportive homes in Parkdale.
And that costs money. And it’s a very wealthy city, as you know, Toronto. How much did it cost yesterday? Because we’re looking at this private security company alone that has a contract, Star Security, [of] $22 million to oversee shelter sites. How much money did you spend yesterday in order to evict those people from the park?
The cost of yesterday’s enforcement of the trespass notice is still being accrued, so I don’t have that number yet.
Spending in the city’s budget on homelessness and housing support this year alone is $662 million. In 2019, it was $365 million. The city has spent millions and millions of dollars and will continue to, to ensure that people who are experiencing homelessness have a place to go, whether it’s a temporary shelter to deal with a COVID-19 pandemic or ultimately into housing.
The people yesterday in the park said they are better off in the park. As lousy as it is to live there, they are better off than in the shelters. It’s not my opinion. It’s theirs. And so do you disagree with them?
People have to make their own decisions about where they want to live. I’m speaking for the city.
They were doing that when they’re living in the park.
Except that they are not permitted to live in parks. You cannot set up tents and other structures and parks, have uncontrolled fires in parks, putting other people at risk.
Will the police show up to do similar raids in the coming weeks?
We have issued trespass notices to other encampments. We will continue to exhaust every possible avenue to ask those individuals in those encampments to please consider accepting those offers of safe indoor space and accommodation.
If they don’t want to do that, that’s fine. But they will need to vacate those parks when the city chooses to enforce those trespass notices. We will make that decision in the future.
Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.