Toronto Mayor John Tory defended the actions of police and private security tasked with evicting several dozen homeless people from Trinity-Bellwoods Park on Tuesday, saying it was “mostly peaceful,” despite police using pepper spray, horses and at one point encircling people with metal fences.
After issuing trespass notices at the encampment 10 days earlier, police, shelter administration and private security guards descended on the west-end park on Tuesday to remove about 25 people who live in tents in the park and refer them to shelters or city-paid hotel rooms.
Protesters gathered in defence of the encampment dwellers, and city crews began erecting a large blue metal fence around the area, they claimed to help facilitate cleaning.
There were clashes between demonstrators and police, some who were on horseback, some clad in full riot gear, and pepper spray was reportedly used against those demonstrating.
Police later said three people were arrested at the scene, one for assaulting a peace officer, another for weapons possession.
Also detained was nationally-recognized photojournalist Ian Willms, who was documenting the evictions.
The Canadian Association of Journalists issued a statement calling Willms’ detention “a complete overreaction.”
“I stand by what we have done which is a reasonable, firm, but compassionate way of dealing with this where we offer, and we offer, and we offer ways to take people safely indoors to housing, but there does come a time when it comes to camping in parks, which is unsafe and illegal, where you have to take action,” Tory told CP24
He said he was not involved in determining details of police deployment and tactics but otherwise supported their actions.
“I support what they did and I think it mostly went quite peacefully.”
Tory said that there were no active outbreaks of COVID-19 in any city shelter facility anymore, and that city workers had made thousands of attempts to convince encampment dwellers to come inside over the past year.
“We’re quite insistent that it’s no place for people to be in a park in terms of their own safety and besides which it is illegal,” he told CP24.
Activists and one encampment dweller told CP24 on Tuesday that shelters are still considered to be crowded, with the threat of physical violence and theft all too common.
Tory said most people who agreed to leave an encampment lately were offered a hotel room.
“They’re offered a hotel room, this is not something that can be seen to be unsafe.”
Tory later told reporters at a news conference that fences and police were required to deal not with the homeless in the park, but people they expected would come to protest their eviction.
“I didn’t decide on and wasn’t asked for my opinion on fences, but they were there to protect the safety of the city workers, both parks and recreation and streets to homes workers, who were there to speak to the remaining people experiencing homelessness and to try to convince them yet again to come inside and try to protect their safety, against what we had been warned were people who would come out and try and create a direct confrontation between those people.”
The evicted persons were allowed to bring two bags of possessions with them if they agreed to vacate, with the rest of the items found in the encampment to remain at the park for pickup later.
Each person was to be offered meals, harm reduction, physical and mental health supports and access to a housing worker.
A spokesperson said 12 people living outdoors at Trinity-Bellwoods on Tuesday accepted offers of space in shelters or hotels.
In a news release issued Wednesday afternoon, the city said two more people from the encampment agreed to be placed in accommodations.
The city noted nine people in the encampment declined support or service and left the park. Eight other people who are known to live in the encampment were unable to be contacted.
About 60 structures, including tents and wooden sheds, have been removed from the park, the city said, adding that approximately 17,000 kilograms of debris were also cleared from the encampment. They include a large generator, knives, propane tanks, and thousands of discarded needles.
Net spending on shelter and re-housing in Toronto is up from $365.8 million pre-pandemic in 2019 to $663.2 million this year.
Tory said the budget numbers indicate Toronto is “working harder than any city government” on the issue of shelter and housing supports.
On Wednesday, a woman in her 60s was arrested trying to break through the fencing in the park, reportedly to gather her belongings that were still stuck inside.
She was charged for trespassing and given a $50 ticket.
Tory told reporters Wednesday he expected a full review of how these evictions are carried out is likely already underway.
“I am sure that in the aftermath of this incident or series of events yesterday, I am sure there will be a full review of how you could do anything like this better if there was to be a next time. I am sure that is happening without me even asking.”
TORONTO POLICE RELEASES STATEMENT
The Toronto Police Service issued a statement Wednesday afternoon about its role in Tuesday's encampment clearing. It said that they were at the site to ensure public safety by using a "proportionate response, with an emphasis on de-escalation."
"Our resources were adjusted throughout the day as more protestors travelled to the site for the purpose of interfering with the clearing of the encampment. Protestors out-numbered encampment residents, creating an increasingly unstable and unsafe environment for them and for city staff," the statement read.
"Throughout the day, when requested to do so, our officers responded with the least amount of force necessary. Officers were measured in their response and the physical removal of anyone from the area was used as a last resort; after multiple cautions and requests for cooperation were ignored. There were no injuries reported."
TPS added that body-worn cameras and a drone were used to assess the situation.
The service is also defending the arrest of Willms, saying that officers told protesters and media multiple times that they were not allowed to access the area inside the fence.
TPS said the photojournalist climbed over the fence, ignoring police orders, and was arrested without incident.
"The Toronto Police Service respects the media's right to report on police activity and recognizes the media as an essential service. It is clear from the widespread media coverage that visible access to the area was not compromised," the statement read.
"Media are not exempt from restrictions put in place for people's safety in the same way they are not permitted to enter other police or crime scenes."
TPS said Willms was later released with no charges. He disputed the claim, telling CP24 Wednesday evening that he was “never made aware of any illegality of crossing the fence.”
Meanwhile, police said they are investigating a report that a journalist was surrounded by protestors and was assaulted with an object.
"With any operational response of this size, the service debriefs for the purpose of making any adjustments, if necessary, to its next deployment," the statement read.