City workers, accompanied by Peterborough police, forced the dismantling of an encampment in an East City park on Tuesday.
Aaron Parker said city workers woke him and his partner Jackie in their tent in James Stevenson Park, near Hunter Street East and Burnham Street, around 7:30 a.m. They were issued a trespass order and told they had 45 minutes to pack up their belongings and leave, he said.
“It’s ignorant. It was nice and clean here. We weren’t causing problems,” he said. “How would they feel if someone took their home?”
The couple had been living in the park since the encampment of about 14 tents sprang up last Thursday.
An informal group of volunteers – many of whom were present on Tuesday morning – had been bringing food, water, harm reduction supplies, and tents to the campers over the previous several days.
Tenting is prohibited in city parks under the parks and facilities bylaw, said Dean Findlay, manager of the city’s building and enforcement division, which oversees bylaw enforcement.
“We’re just going to hopefully get everybody to move along peacefully,” he said Tuesday morning, as some of the campers began to take down their tents. “We don’t want a confrontation.”
City staff had issued notices telling the campers to vacate the park last Friday, but instead more came over the weekend, Findlay said.
Peterborough police warned that if people did not leave on their own, they would be forcibly removed, according to volunteers. Peterborough Currents reporters, who were there until about 11 a.m., did not see any confrontations with police.
Volunteers helped take down some of the tents. All but one remained standing by early afternoon, as can be seen in a Facebook video posted by one of the volunteers.
After leaving the park, many of the people who’d been living in the encampment went to look for other places in the city to camp, volunteers said.
“Why can’t we just stay here?”
Samantha, who did not give her last name, said she had been living in the park since last Thursday.
She shared her tent with her dog, Quinn. “It’s been great for my dog. Lots of space. Lots of other people around,” she said. “It’s been nice and quiet usually.”
“Why can’t we just stay here? It’s a big enough park,” Samantha said.
Samantha became homeless after her partner died earlier this year and she had to move out of the apartment they shared on Stewart Street.
“After he passed, rent was way too expensive. And I couldn’t find anybody reliable to take over the other half.”
When police arrived on Tuesday morning, Samantha said her anxiety spiked, but Quinn kept her calm. “That’s why I haven’t stopped petting her,” she said.
Samantha said that, due to a neurological disorder, she is prone to seizures brought on by stress. Quinn warns her when one is coming, she said. “She’s never been trained but she’s really good at it.”
“My anxiety is really bad, but I’m okay,” she said, as she tried to figure out her next steps. “No seizures today.”
“We’ve had people who haven’t left their tent because they’re scared”
At about 9 a.m., public works employees drove a backhoe and dump truck into the park and through the encampment to clean up some fallen tree branches.
The chainsaw and backhoe noises seemed to be an “intimidation tactic,” said Luca Schaefer, one of the volunteers who was supporting the campers.
“Bulldozers are bringing logs past people’s tents,” she said. “We’ve had people who haven’t left their tent because they’re scared.”
In addition to bringing supplies, volunteers also cleaned the park regularly and took away garbage, Schaefer said. They also provided a portable toilet tent, like those that many people use on camping trips. “We’re trying to make this as livable as it can [be],” she said.
Volunteers also dealt with complaints from neighbours. “Unfortunately, during the time that we have been here, we have had neighbours heckle and harass our people living outside,” Schaefer said. “And we’ve been … speaking to them and hearing out their complaints and telling them what we’re doing on our end.”
Schaefer said she slept in the encampment last Friday and Saturday nights to offer support to those living in the park.
Parker said the presence of supportive volunteers helped make the encampment feel safe, and he appreciated that they provided supplies like hot coffee in the mornings.
“I think it’s something they should keep here,” he said. “We’re all respectful. It’s pretty clean here. I don’t see any dirty needles or any dirty stuff. It’s pretty well maintained.”
He said he and Jackie have camped all over Peterborough – and have been forced out of parks by city workers about 10 times. “This is definitely the nicest place I’ve been,” he said of the encampment.
Give people experiencing homelessness a legal place to camp, advocate says
Schaefer wants city hall to make James Stevenson Park a designated place for people experiencing homelessness to camp, so “people can be here without being harassed, evicted and violated,” she said.
“When folks who are living outside are living apart from each other, you’re not as strong and you’re more easily able to be victimized,” she said. “But this is community building. This is a network where people can be together and share everything and be protected.”
Samantha agrees that city hall should set aside a park for people experiencing homelessness to camp in.
“As long as everybody works together, and we can come to a solution with one park where we can all coexist… I think that’d be better than just having a tent city,” she said.
She said that James Stevenson Park would be a good location to allow camping, because it’s close to downtown services many people rely on, such as the One Roof Community Centre, which provides free meals, and addiction treatment services. She goes to a methadone clinic once a day to get treatment for opioid dependency.
“Everything is right downtown, so why can’t we be right downtown?” she said.
Tara Berry, an outreach worker with the City’s social services department, was on-site speaking to campers on Tuesday morning.
“We’re here to try and connect people who want to access shelter to the [emergency shelters],” she said. “We have lots of beds right now in shelter.”
But Samantha said she wouldn’t stay at a shelter because they don’t allow pets and she didn’t want to be separated from Quinn.
Parker said he didn’t want to go to a shelter either.
“I don’t like the shelters because it’s too much drama,” he said. He and Jackie would also likely be split up if they chose to go to one. Only the Wolfe Street overflow shelter admits both men and women (the Brock Street Mission is only for men and Cameron House is only for women), but there’s no guarantee that couples will get to sleep in the same room.
Berry said people who were banned from shelters or who couldn’t access them for other reasons would be dealt with on a “case-by-case” basis. “We have workers waiting at the office to connect with people who do have service restrictions or pets, to see what else we can problem solve with them.”
Berry was trying to arrange reservations at local campgrounds for Samantha, Parker and Jackie, so they could continue to camp, at least for a few weeks. However, it wasn’t clear if that worked out.
While Berry couldn’t promise any campers immediate access to housing, she encouraged people to make sure they were on the City’s housing waiting list for people experiencing homelessness. “We see vacancies come up every month or two” for people on that list, she said.
-with reporting from Will Pearson