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A barren patch of land in downtown Oshawa, where there was once a memorial to community members who have died of overdoses.Galit Rodan/Globe and Mail

Early one morning this spring, while many residents still slept, a work crew pulled into a dead-end road in the heart of this Southern Ontario city. They parked at a handmade memorial for its most vulnerable people. A colourful jumble of candles, plastic flowers and painted rocks daubed with names, it stood on a swath of grass a few steps from the road. Its purpose was to remember the dead of Oshawa’s mean streets.

Oshawa lies an hour east of Toronto on the edge of Lake Ontario. Though the city of 166,000 is thriving in many ways, with growing suburbs and pleasant nature trails, its historic downtown is home to a struggling community of the poor, the addicted and the mentally ill. Escalating rents have pushed many out of their cheap apartments and rooming houses to couch surf or sleep outdoors. A string of house fires and the grisly killings of two teenaged girls have exposed the danger of life on the margins. Now, a plague of drug overdoses is scything through their ranks.

Just about everybody has lost someone close – a pal, a father, a daughter. Often, they have no proper place to grieve. If there is a funeral, they may not be invited. If there is a grave, it may be in another city. They wake up one morning to find that their friends are simply gone.

So they built a place of their own. It came together gradually. A guy with the street name of Sizzy made a “memorial wall” out of an old wooden shipping skid, painting it, propping it upright and covering it with names of those who died. Others placed stones on the ground in front of it, each dedicated to one of the departed: Scotty, Booboo, R.J., Bentley, Kelly, Dude.

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Christeen Thornton holds a rock bearing faded writing, a remnant of the memorial.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

As the months passed and the deaths mounted, the memorial on John Street West grew. Visiting mourners festooned it with plastic angels, stuffed toys and pinwheels that spun in the breeze. Someone added a string of twinkly dollar-store lights, with a donation cup nearby to gather loose change for fresh batteries.

A young woman left a series of letters to her ex-boyfriend, who was always pushing her to get sober. They smoked their first cigarette together as teens. Another left a lantern for her son, who overdosed last December at the age of 30. She etched a drawing of a cardinal on the glass in memory of the birds they used to see on their walks together.

Christeen Thornton drew a sketch of her friend, Jon, slipping it into a clear plastic folder to protect it from the rain. He died of an overdose last year. Ms. Thornton says the memorial gave Oshawa’s outcasts a place to heal. “It was just right. It was perfect, in fact. Because we made it.”

The names of some of the most familiar figures on the city’s streets could be found there: “Chicago,” who loved to rap and was always adjusting his Chicago Bulls ball cap; “Sonny,” a baby-faced young man who was found dead in his tent; “Pops,” the weather-beaten grandfather figure who died this winter of complications from an ulcer.

People would come by at all hours to stand by the John Street memorial, leaving the disorder of their lives behind and taking a moment to remember. Looking at the names reminded them that though their friends were gone, they had not simply vanished like so many wisps of smoke. They were people; they had existed; they were missed. A handwritten sign at the site said, “welcome 2 the garden of the unforgotten.”

For a long time the memorial didn’t seem to bother anyone. It was off the beaten track, on a stretch of city property next to a community garden and across from a parking lot. Its keepers left a broom and a rake to keep it tidy. They put up signs warning against leaving litter or using drugs. Similar, unofficial memorials have sprung up across the country as the opioid crisis deepens: a mural in a Vancouver alley, rows of white crosses at a busy intersection in Sudbury.

But one day a complaint came into the city’s service line. Officials investigated. They found that the memorial violated Oshawa’s Road Fouling bylaw, which states that roads and their edges must be kept free of “debris, waste, refuse and litter.”

The city’s director of operations, Mike Saulnier, says that when the department gets a complaint about something like the memorial, it is bound to act. “If it contravenes a bylaw it gets removed.” Simple as that. He can’t go around making exceptions. If he did, “What is to stop someone from putting a memorial to their granny in the park?”

And so one day in April the city crew came down to John Street. They had a front-end loader and a truck. They scooped everything up – memory rocks, lucky pennies, crosses, poems, photos – put it in the truck and carried it off to the dump. Mr. Saulnier says they didn’t save any of the mementoes or tell anyone what they planned to do. Who would they tell?

Later that day, forestry workers came around to finish the job. They cut down a couple small trees where visitors had once hung a paper lantern and a bird feeder. They put the limbs through a roaring chipper and left. All that remained was wood chips and some tracks in the mud. The John Street memorial was gone.

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A burnt tea light on the ground, a remnant of the now-dismantled memorial.Galit Rodan/Globe and Mail

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