'This is not who we are': Regional council addresses public outcry over removal of homeless encampment
The removal of a homeless encampment in Kitchener prompted public backlash and a protest, and now council members with the Region of Waterloo are taking a hard look at how similar situations will be handled in the future.
The region's Chief Administrative Officer addressed the public's concerns during a virtual council meeting on Monday.
"All residents deserved to be treated with respect and dignity," said Bruce Lauckner. "On Friday we failed to do that. Seeing the images from Friday hit a lot of people hard. It hit me hard. This is not who we are."
He added that "as CAO I take full responsibility."
Council also heard more about the decisions and events leading up to Friday's eviction.
Rod Regier, the Commissioner of Planning, Development and Legislative Services, said the region received public safety complaints about the encampment at Stirling Avenue and Charles Street, which was set up at the end of September.
Those included "concerns that the encampment was in close proximity to a bus shelter, to a high school and contained exposed sharps," or needles.
Regier told council that staff from the region's licensing and enforcement division went to the site, and after determining it was on regionally owned property, contacted local housing services. That's when a mobile homeless outreach group was brought in to connect with the people at the encampment and provide them with support and shelter options.
Regier said there was sufficient space in the shelter system for all of the individuals at the encampment.
On Nov. 19, council heard that bylaw was made aware of the situation and that a notice of trespass would be issued.
Regier said that staff went to the site on Nov. 24 to let the people living there know that they had to leave the encampment by Nov. 24 at 9 a.m. He added that notices were posted on the three tents at Stirling and Charles, as well as the nearby bus shelter. Other agencies, like Ray of Hope and the House of Friendship were also notified of the decision.
"Staff arrived at the site by 10 a.m.," said Regier. "All but two of the individuals had already vacated the property. The remaining two individuals advised that they did not intend to leave. At this point, police services were notified and officers arrived at approximately 10:45 a.m. It is our understanding that they did not confront the remaining individuals but that they did vacate the space by 2 p.m. Cleanup of the space then began."
He also addressed the decision to bring in heavy machinery.
"Due to concerns stemming from the generally unsanitary conditions, large items such as couches, a mattress and drug paraphernalia including exposed sharps, the cleanup approach included employment of a road maintenance crew with heavy equipment. While the decision to remove belongings with heavy equipment was made to protect the health and safety of staff and community, the manner in which this was carried out does not reflect the dignity of those living at the encampment."
Those actions, as well as photos that were shared online, sparked public backlash.
About 200 protestors gathered at the site Sunday to demand answers.
Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic also issued a statement saying he "reached out to the chair and CAO and requested that staff conduct a full review with recommendations about how to better handle these situations in the future."
Council was told Monday that there would be ongoing discussions and a review would be presented at a later date.
Some of the issues that will be looked at are the role of police and the approval process.
"This was a complete operational and governance breakdown," said Coun. Sean Strickland at the meeting. "How that process could have been approved, using a front-end loader, without the appropriate check and balances within the region's organizational structure, right through to the commissioner and CEO level, and then from there to council."
"I think collectively, as an organization and as a council, we're saying we need to do better," said Vrbanovic.
Lauckner is also committed to the review process.
"We will modify our process to ensure residents and their belongings are treated with respect and dignity," he said. "This is not the outcome that anyone wanted or deserved. We need to do better and we will do better. I want to express my deep apologies to the residents harmed by our actions."
Earlier this month the House of Friendship announced that they would be losing their shelter space at a Guelph hotel, leaving around 70 men without a place to stay. The organization has been working on temporary solutions, including offering transitional housing at their former shelter location on Charles Street in Kitchener.
Lawrence Lutgendorff, the manager of fundraising and communication at Ray of Hope, said there needs to be a more fulsome solution to the issue of homelessness.
"A review needs to include longer term planning around dealing with homelessness: the number of people in shelters, the number of shelter beds that are available, the services that are available during the day. Those are the type of things that Ray of Hope are most concerned about."
A Better Tent City has confirmed to CTV News that they're helping one of the displaced residents from the encampment.
-- WIth reporting by Heather Senoran