City bylaw officers who arrived to relocate an encampment of homeless people from the parking lot of the YMCA and Memorial Park on May 12 backed off after the situation became tense, the city has said.
The encampment is located in the below-ground parking structure at the YMCA building on Durham Street. The area offers protection from the weather and a heat source from the YMCA pool heater vent directly above. Support workers from several groups have formed the Poverty and Housing Advocacy Coalition (PHAC), which has been offering aid to the fluctuating number of people living there. At points, upwards of 30 or so people were camped under the building.
Made up of activists, advocates, outreach workers and people with lived experience, the PHAC came together in the midst of the pandemic to work to address longer-term issues related to poverty, the opioid crisis, homelessness and housing in Sudbury.
Joel Boivin works with SACY and is a PHAC member. He said bylaw officers arrived close to 1 p.m., and described the scene as tense but peaceful. Bylaw officers left shortly after 3 p.m. without relocating any of the people or dismantling any of the shelters they had built.
Boivin said support workers continued to check on the scene throughout the night to ensure that the attempt to dismantle was not done in the night, something he said he has witnessed in the past.
In a statement, Shannon Dowling with the city’s communications department said encampments of the sort at the YMCA are “complex issues” for municipalities. She said the city’s approach is to try to balance the needs of the people camped out with the needs of other users of these public spaces.
“The city has received numerous complaints about public safety and the well-being of people who have taken up residency at the Centre for Life (YMCA) Parking Lot,” said Dowling in the statement. “This underground parking lot is owned and operated by the city and provides parking options for downtown businesses, daycare services and many seniors accessing nearby health care services.”
Further, she said the officers have been visiting the encampment regularly to speak to the occupants, trying to encourage them to seek support though community agencies and move on from the parking lot.
Dowling said some people were receptive to the supports available in the city and have already relocated. Others have chosen not to and do not want to leave the property. The city can’t force people into shelters or force them into accessing services, she said.
“It is a person’s choice whether they want to accept the supports and services available to them, including permanent housing options through social services and other community partner agencies,” Dowling said.
As to the events of May 12, Dowling said when bylaw officers arrived, the people living there were “initially being responsive to being asked to leave the property.” After outreach workers and others she described as “protesters” arrived, the situation changed.
“External sources, including a group of protesters, became involved and tensions began to escalate,” Dowling said. “In order to ensure public safety, and the safety of those in the encampment, security enforcement officers and Greater Sudbury Police made the decision to regroup and reassess the situation.”
It is not clear what the city’s next move is. Dowling said city officials are concerned that the living conditions in the underground parking lot are unhealthy, explaining efforts to offer support and services for those living where will continue.
She said the city will reassess the situation and explore options for next steps.
PHAC members on site suggested the city itself might be partially to blame for the unhealthy living conditions at the encampment.
Sudbury.com was told by outreach workers that the city removed all garbage cans from the area, making it more difficult to keep clean, so those camped out drafted a rotating schedule to clean, piling any garbage into piles along the walls of the parking lot. Sudbury Action Centre for Youth (SACY) supplied numerous ‘sharps’ containers for used syringes.
The lack of available washroom facilities is certainly an issue and the odour of urine was quite pronounced while a Sudbury.com reporter was at the site.
Boivin, the PHAC member and SACY worker quoted earlier, said he thinks there might have been a bit of confusion on the part of bylaw officers on what to do about the encampment and a lack of co-ordination on how to proceed.
“Bylaw officers expressed to us when we got there that they were expecting Redcoats to show up with a plan of where to go,” he said.
‘Redcoats’ is a common name among those who work with the homeless for outreach workers with the Sudbury Homelessness Network.
Ray Landry, co-ordinator of housing services for the Homelessness Network, told Sudbury.com the network wasn’t asked to participate in the attempted relocation and even if they had been, they wouldn’t have — not unless one of the people living rough had asked them.
“We don't work for bylaw, we don't work for the city,” Landry said. “We're there to support the homeless person. So when a homeless person has requests of us and needs support, that's who we're supporting.”
SACY worker Boivin said he worries the people leaving the encampment will scatter, leaving them less likely to seek help, more likely to encounter danger, and even, more likely to die.
“Scattering means Isolation,” he said. “And that means that we have to search to find out folks, to make sure they get what they need. Even adding COVID to that. If we have someone who tests positive on a rapid test, and then we can’t find them, that’s trouble.”
He said that this will make the direct support work he does much harder.
“In addition to trying to help these folks, give them medical care, food, even friendship, we have to search the whole city trying to find them every time they are displaced. That never helps.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this story that was not ready for publication appeared briefly on Sudbury.com yesterday. That version of the story was not accurate and has been removed.