Kingston: Update from Belle Park

The following is an update from Mutual Aid Katarokwi’s Facebook Page about a recent meeting between houseless residents of the Belle Park camp and the City of Kingston officials. For several weeks, ~40 people have been camped out in the parking lot of Belle Park following shelter closures amidst the COVID-19 crisis. The City opened a new shelter outside of the downtown area but many are refusing to live under the restrictive conditions in place, and feel safer together. Also see the recent Radio Pandemic episode about the evolving situation.

On Monday June 29, 9 Belle Park campers, 3 city of Kingston staff, councillor Rob Hutchison and many community members met in the Belle Park parking lot. Mutual Aid Katarokwi-Kingston asked a few Belle Park Camp supporters to attend this meeting and about 25 people came on short notice.

Rob from the City of Kingston Communications Department attempted to start the meeting, when a member of MAKK pointed out that no camp residents were present and we should wait for them before we start (note: the same thing happened last week too when Joanne Boris from the Housing Department tried to start the meeting). Once campers were also present, Rob stated that the city’s goals were to provide updates, keep campers in the loop on the “transition plan”, and hear from campers about the current situation at the park.

Joanne noted that various service providers were continuing to visit and provide services such as Covid testing and dental assistance. A camper asked about the dental services and Joanne clarified that they were providing referrals and not dental care. She also noted that the cooling centre was approved by City Council last week and would open shortly but she could not provide a date.

Campers and other people asked questions about the cooling centre:
-How many people will be able to be in the cooling centre? Campers assume it won’t be able to accept everyone so what will be offered for other people?
-Can you stay there 24 hours a day or will people be asked to leave to make room for other people?
-What will the physical distancing conditions be like?
-What will the sleeping conditions be like?
-What will happen if a Covid outbreak happens in the cooling centre? Will people be forced to stay inside and locked down?
-What will be available to do in the cooling centre?
-Why in the midst of a pandemic, when all evidence says it is safer outside, does the city want to move people from Belle Park to an indoor facility?
-No one solution will work for everyone. Will people who don’t want to go to the cooling center be able to stay at belle park?

City staff were unable to answer any of these questions, stating that it is still being figured out and also could not commit a date for when they would have answers to these questions for the Belle Park campers.

The conversation also moved into talking about housing because many campers, like all of us, want a safe, clean and affordable place to live, of which there is limited supply in Kingston.

Campers and community members asked questions about the Housing First model including:
-How many people have found housing through Housing First? Apparently at least 500 have stayed in housing since the project began and 2 people from the Belle Park camp have found housing through it too, though this is not that large a number given the needs.
-Are all campers eligible to get access to the housing first program? What are the eligibility requirements?

Campers shared their experiences with housing. Some of what we heard included:
– many people have been on the housing first list, however, they have not been successful at finding housing
– Housing people have managed to find was through their own contacts and not through Housing First
– that they have housing lined up, however, the people currently living there cannot be evicted so they cannot move in, so why is it ok for the city to evict the campers at Belle Park if other evictions can’t take place right now?
– That the housing found through Housing First is sometimes poor quality where people have to live with rats, roaches, mould and other issues, however, once a person finds a place they are considered “housed” regardless of the conditions.

One camper said that she can’t go to a shelter so she will likely go back into the woods, which is not safe for women or really anyone to do, but there really isn’t another option if the camp is evicted. Also when campers go back into the woods, that also means less access to services. At a previous meeting with the city, various food providers, street health centre, and HIV and AIDS Regional Services spoke to the importance of being able to find people. So evicting campers makes them more vulnerable if there isn’t a better place to go.

Another Camper talked about how he wants what many people want, their own land and a home to call their own. Can the city support campers in accessing land and building homes? Another camper asked why can’t campers be put up in motels? Other cities have been doing this.

All in all, there was no commitment from the city staff that evictions will not take place on July 7th despite all these unanswered questions, despite no guarantee that the cooling centre will be open and despite not having a date for when more information will even be available and despite there being no council meeting occurring before the deadline. In other words, the City could technically move ahead with an eviction anytime starting July 7 whereas the next council meeting is July 7th in the evening.

This lack of certainty and living in limbo is unacceptable and disrespectful and no doubt anxiety producing for the campers at Belle Park.

Mutual Aid Katarokwi-Kingston stands in solidarity with the Belle Park campers. Join us! To get on our phone tree please email mutualaidkatarokwi [at] gmail [dot] com or send us a message on facebook. No evictions at Belle Park! Not on July 7 and not until all campers have found a place to stay that THEY deem is better than what the Belle Park camp offers them. Respect people’s autonomy and dignity!