Homeless people and hundreds of their supporters spent much of Tuesday in a tense standoff with police in Toronto’s west-end Trinity Bellwoods Park as city officials sought to clear encampments that have sprung up during the pandemic.
Scores of police officers moved in as private security guards erected metal fences around two areas of the park where the city says about 20 homeless people had been living in tents. Protesters seeking to block the move rushed to the park before the fencing was set up, locking arms and forming human barricades around parts of the encampment.
After scuffles in which some protesters tore down parts of the new fence – soon put back up – police made three arrests, laying assault and weapons charges.
By Tuesday afternoon, at least 250 people had gathered outside the fence. At one point, eight police horses moved through the crowd, trying to push protesters away from the barrier. One woman was pepper-sprayed in the face.
A man who identified himself as a housing worker thanked the crowd for coming, but pleaded for calm and said he and others were working to find housing for all camp residents.
But tensions flared into the evening, with confrontations between police and the crowd even after activists with the Encampment Support Network said the park’s remaining residents had agreed to trust the city’s offers of housing and asked protesters to leave.
At one point, a line of police pushed protesters, and at least one homeless woman, out of the fenced-off area.
Residents wanted some privacy as they sorted through their belongings and worked with the city to find housing, said Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker at Sanctuary, a Christian group that works with the homeless in Toronto’s downtown, who was inside the barricades.
Ms. Lam said she was concerned about a city council vote earlier this month that called for zero encampments: “It’s great if we get to no encampments if people have housing, but the reality is there is no housing, so how are we going to get to no encampments? Well, it’s going to be through displacements like this.”
Downtown city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam said in a statement she was “horrified” at the size of the police presence used to clear the camp, but that she believes shelters are safer than living outside in tents.
City spokesman Brad Ross said late Tuesday that 12 of the estimated 20 residents at the encampment had agreed to come into the city’s shelters in repurposed hotels or other indoor spaces. A few others left the park on their own, Mr. Ross said.
All had been visited by city outreach workers who tried to persuade them to move inside long before Tuesday, he said – and before trespass notices were posted on June 12, warning of evictions and $10,000 fines.
Mr. Ross said the fencing was needed to keep city outreach workers and cleanup workers safe and to avoid a rerun of last month’s attempted clearing of an encampment at Lamport Stadium, which resulted in clashes and arrests.
Some homeless people and activists have said encampments are safer than shelters, particularly as the pandemic took hold.
Over the past year, the city expanded its shelter system into a network of leased hotels to allow physical distancing. The city says just over half of the shelter population has at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine and that it has no active outbreaks in its shelter system.
City officials have also repeatedly raised the concern of fires, saying the fire department had responded to 114 “fire events” in encampments this year.
Susan Gibson, whose tent was surrounded by a human chain, said she did not want to take a spot in a shelter or a hotel because she feels much safer from violence and the spread of COVID-19 outdoors.
“This is a waste of taxpayer money and it’s divisive when we should be helping people,” she said.
Mayor John Tory defended what he said was a “measured” move to clear the encampment. He said outreach workers had made 20,000 visits to encampments over the past year trying to persuade people to come to shelters, where they can get services and move toward permanent housing.
During the protest, police barred some photographers and reporters from entering the fenced-off area, while others were allowed to remain. The Canadian Association of Journalists said police handcuffed and detained award-winning freelance photographer Ian Willms, who climbed over the fence to photograph officers as they gathered around a group of homeless people. CAJ president Brent Jolly condemned the moves to restrict journalists’ access, and called the arrest a “complete overreaction.”
With a report from The Canadian Press
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.