Encampment evictions are an “every day” reality in Peterborough

Hundreds of “illegal tenting” incidents have been responded to at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars
Two security guards from GardaWorld issue a trespass order to a tent in Victoria Park on August 11. The guards said the tent was occupied. Later in the day, the tent had been removed. (Photo: Will Pearson)

On the morning of August 17, two GardaWorld security guards attended Millennium Park in downtown Peterborough accompanied by police officers and public works employees with a backhoe and dump truck. They were joined by a volunteer chaplain who was available to provide support if necessary.

The crew was at Millennium Park to enforce the city’s parks and facilities bylaw, which makes it illegal to camp in public parks without a permit. The bylaw has been controversial in Peterborough since its passage by city council in 2019 because it has been enforced primarily against people experiencing homelessness, some of whom say they have no options besides sleeping in public parks.

As the municipal employees went about cleaning the park, three people who’d spent the night there retreated with their belongings and watched.

“This is our life,” one woman said. The people waited out the visit from the security guards and said they planned to return to their camping spot as soon as everyone left. 

Soon enough, the crew did leave. When they were done cleaning up at Millennium Park, the security guards, police officers, chaplain, and public works employees hopped in their vehicles and drove to the Reid and McDonnell Park next to Jackson Creek. Currents caught up with the crew as they went through the process all over again.

One tent had been pitched in that park for most of the preceding week. By the time Currents arrived, the guards and police officers were watching as a man dismantled the tent and vacated. The public works employees then cleaned the park up. Items including bike parts, a roll of duct tape, and a box of clothing were left behind. The public works employees loaded items into the dump truck.

The security guards weren’t done yet. The GardaWorld team was seen later that morning patrolling Inverlea Park, also with public works employees on hand.

Four years after the initial passage of the parks and facilities bylaw, its enforcement has become a part of daily life for people living rough and those tasked with continually moving them along. 

And while previous encampment evictions — like the one in James Stevenson Park in June of last year — have garnered media attention partly because of the large number of tents involved, the current enforcement efforts appear to be succeeding at nipping encampments in the bud rather than giving them time to grow. (With the exception of the Wolfe Street encampment, where the bylaw does not appear to be enforced.) As a result, these encampment evictions might go unnoticed by the general public.

“If it’s a popular park … and folks are there, those spaces are being enforced quite heavily,” said Alana Parisien, who manages the housing programs at the Elizabeth Fry Society and provides outreach to people living outside.

According to a presentation received by city councillors this month, there have been 800 illegal tenting investigations in Peterborough. (The presentation did not specify a timeframe for that number and the city’s communications manager did not provide one when asked.)

But despite all these efforts, Parisien said there isn’t any less tenting in Peterborough. “It’s not right in your face and public,” they said. “But it’s absolutely happening on the outskirts in places where it’s more hidden.”

Costs pile up as tenting continues

On the morning of July 19, Currents observed as two police officers, four public works employees and one security guard attended the Reid and McDonnell Park. This time, too, there was only one man who was tenting there.

The security guard explained that the man had previously been issued a trespass order, and so today he had to leave. But the guard was doing the man “a favour,” he said, by allowing him to pack up and leave instead of fining him.

“A little heartless, no?” an observer walking through the park yelled at the security guard. “This keeps me up at night.”

The man asked the guard what time it was and the guard told him. “Fuck,” said the man. Having to pack his things up meant he’d missed the Salvation Army’s free breakfast that morning. The man said he didn’t know where he’d go next, but he ruled out any of the shelters due to concerns of bed bugs and thefts. He didn’t seem talkative, so Currents didn’t push him further.

Instead, we asked the security guard how often he enforces the bylaw like this. “Every day,” he said. In fact, the guard had kicked this particular individual out of a park at least once before, he said.

Last fall, Peterborough’s then-acting police chief Tim Farquharson called the bylaw’s enforcement a “perpetual cycle of displacement,” noting that his officers often evicted people from parks only to see tents repitched hours later.

These ongoing enforcement efforts come at a cost. City council heard earlier this year that the contract with GardaWorld to enforce the bylaw costs the city $3,300 per week.

In 2021 and 2022, the city used another security company, Securitas, to help enforce the parks bylaw. According to invoices obtained by Currents through a freedom-of-information request, Securitas billed the city over $25,000 in 2021 and 2022 combined for activities including patrolling the Wolfe Street encampment and other parks throughout the city.

And in 2022, the city’s public works department spent more than $100,000 on efforts related to enforcing the bylaw, according to the same freedom-of-information request.

Peterborough Police, too, are footing the bill to enforce the bylaw. According to a spokesperson for the service, officers “respond to pre-planned requests from the City of Peterborough to be present to keep the peace” during clearings of campsites. Sandra Dueck said the service has responded to 25 such “clean-ups” in 2023.

“Because we all work together, we obviously don’t charge the city for our services, despite the fact it’s not necessarily a core responsibility of the police,” Dueck wrote. But the service is tracking the cost of responding to encampment clearings, she said. Those numbers will be shared during city council’s budget consultations later this year, when the police service is expected to ask for additional funding for staffing, despite councillors’ concerns that budget pressures will force property taxes higher this year.

Tenters seek out secluded areas to avoid detection

Take a walk through Peterborough this summer, and you’re likely to see tents pitched in secluded locations and under the cover of trees.

Parisien, from the Elizabeth Fry Society, said that hiding in the woods is one way that people experiencing homelessness are responding to the enforcement of the parks bylaw. Parisien called that “incredibly unsafe.”

It’s making it harder for outreach workers to find people, Parisien said. “It’s harder to keep them safe and supported and connected to resources,” they said. 

Parisien said that just this month, an individual was found deceased in his tent by a community member. “He was out on a trail, not in close proximity to a lot of other folks,” Parisien said. “We can’t administer Naloxone and keep tabs on folks when they’re having to hide away.”

“It’s harder to connect with people if they’re hidden,” agreed Dane Record, the executive director of PARN, an agency that provides harm reduction outreach services to people experiencing homelessness. “It doesn’t make our work any more satisfying to have to dig through and make sure that somebody is doing well,” he said.

City CAO deflects calls to sanction camping

Record from PARN believes the city should provide sanctioned locations where people can tent without having to worry about bylaw enforcement. “There are enough private unused lots,” he said. “There are probably a number of city-owned lots that are available. Why not make those spaces accessible?” he asked.

Under the bylaw, the city’s chief administrative officer, or CAO, does have the authority to temporarily allow tenting in parks if the CAO deems the municipal shelter system’s capacity inadequate. Currents asked Peterborough’s new CAO, Jasbir Raina, whether he would do so. We also asked what data and evidence he was using to assess shelter capacity and the number of people experiencing homelessness. Raina deferred Currents’ questions to the city’s communications manager, Brendan Wedley. 

“I’m not aware of any consideration by the city’s CAO” to permit tenting in parks, Wedley wrote. “Further, current information is that the city has capacity in its shelter system.”

An average of 27 beds per night were reported to be empty at the city’s overflow shelter during the month of June.

“There is recognition that some of the individuals who are unsheltered will not stay in the shelter system, as it does not meet their needs or preferences,” a city staff report from May of this year stated. “The number of clients who are unsheltered is continuing to increase.”

In 2022, the number of people who had formally identified themselves as homeless to the city remained relatively steady at a little over 300 individuals. The city stopped regularly posting the updated numbers on its website at the end of last year. There are 106 beds in the municipal shelter system.

“None of us … relish enforcing this”: Police questioned city’s justification for bylaw enforcement last fall

Behind closed doors, some local officials have expressed skepticism about the city’s claim that the shelter system has sufficient capacity. 

“Based on the number of tents in the city not sure we have the capacity to accommodate everyone,” wrote Inspector Jamie Hartnett from the Peterborough Police last fall in a message obtained by Currents. “This makes it more of a challenge to address as our argument from the beginning was there were places for these people to go.”

Hartnett’s message was posted in the Microsoft Teams group chat for the city’s Outdoor Living committee, which was coordinating the enforcement of the parks bylaw at the time. Currents obtained it through a freedom-of-information request.

The city’s commissioner of community services Sheldon Laidman responded to Hartnett in the group chat.

“[T]he number of shelter beds available will never match the total number of people sleeping outside,” Laidman wrote. “It is [p]hysically and financially impossible for any city to do th[i]s.”

“The fact remains that people are illegally occupying a piece of land that is contrary to a bylaw that has been lawfully passed,” Laidman continued. “None of us on this group chat relish enforcing this but that is the job we’ve all been given and tasked with. Improving shelter options should be a goal but frankly it is not a reason for the police not to do everything possible to help us enforce this bylaw to remove people from illegally occupying our properties.”


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