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Toronto starts clearing another encampment


TORONTO — Police and city inspectors moved in to clear another homeless encampment at a public park in downtown Toronto on Tuesday, arresting several people, including a photojournalist with The Canadian Press. 

The city said it was enforcing trespass notices it issued last month to dozens of people living in four homeless encampments. The notices warned those who refused to leave the park could be removed and face fines of up to $10,000 if convicted. 

Police said nine people were arrested during the clearing at Alexandra Park on Tuesday, seven of them for trespassing.

"The city will officially close Alexandra Park today to allow staff to engage with encampment occupants, encouraging them to accept offers of safe indoor accommodation," the city said in a statement. 

"All individuals will be required to leave the park, which will allow city crews to start removing debris and restoring the grounds."

City spokesman Brad Ross said 26 people were in the park on Tuesday morning. He said they were verbally advised they were trespassing, and 19 left while seven accepted indoor accommodation.  

"Anyone arrested for trespassing was done so after being asked to leave the park, which was closed," Ross said. 

By mid-morning, dozens of security guards surrounded orange metal fencing that popped up around the site, while workers in hazmat suits were dismantling tents and cleaning up debris. 

Evicted camp occupants gathered on the curbs, some waiting for people still inside to hand them bags and suitcases over the fence. Rattled by the experience, they were unsure where they would go next.

A woman named Nikki said she had been living in the park with her cat since being laid off from her job last fall. 

She said she was offered a room in a city-run hotel but decided not to take it when she learned she could not bring her pet. 

"These hotels are just fancier versions of jails. There are forced check-ins, they barge in at night for safety checks," she said. "People feel safer in these little communities."

Sally, another resident who gave only her first name, said she was only given 30 minutes to pack her belongings and wasn't offered accommodation. 

"I am really hoping I find a place to go, because right now, I have nowhere to go," she said.

The city cited the risk of fires and cancellation of day camps that intended to use the park among reasons for taking down the encampment.

Annie Mackinnon, who lives in the neighbourhood, was at Alexandra Park on Tuesday to support the encampment residents. 

"It is just awful, and I hate to see my taxpayer dollars go to bullies in uniforms when it should be going to affordable housing," she said. 

Chris Young, a longtime freelance photographer for The Canadian Press, was reporting on the encampment clearing when he was arrested by a city worker for trespassing. He was released with no charges after he was escorted out of the closed-off area in handcuffs.

Young said in an interview that he was the only visible member of the media on site when he arrived early in the morning. He said the area was not fenced or manned by staff at the time, but that changed as more people enforcing the order arrived.

He said he pushed back on requests to leave the area where staff were speaking with the encampment residents being evicted. 

Just before 9 a.m., Young said a city worker told him he had a choice to leave or be arrested. 

"They gave me an option to leave on my own will, which I declined to do because it's important to have press freedom," Young said. "They gave me an option to either leave or be arrested so I chose arrest voluntarily."

He said he was handcuffed by a city worker, then two police officers led him out of the fenced-in area. He was issued a notice of trespass, which doesn't carry a charge but bars him from returning to the site for 90 days.

"It's incredibly worrying, because not being able to document or witness what's going on leaves people vulnerable to human rights as well as physical abuses," Young said of the move to restrict his access to the scene.

Ross said Young was the only person arrested by City Corporate Security.

Young's arrest sparked condemnation from the Canadian Association of Journalists and The Canadian Press.

"Chris Young is a veteran photojournalist, a consummate pro who should be allowed to do his job free of interference from authorities," said Andrea Baillie, editor-in-chief of The Canadian Press.

The clearing of another homeless encampment in the city last month drew criticism for the disproportionate use of force by police. 

Toronto's mayor defended that operation but promised a review of what took place. 

Early in the pandemic, hundreds fled Toronto's homeless shelters for fear of contracting COVID-19, setting up tents in parks throughout the city.

Recent data obtained by The Canadian Press also shows a significant rise in violent incidents in Toronto's shelter system over the last five years.

The city maintains the shelter system is safe and has said it will eventually clear all of the homeless encampments, which it says are unsafe. City council also recently passed a motion to end encampments.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 20, 2021.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter and Rhythm Sachdeva, The Canadian Press

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