KINGSTON, Ont. — Peter Hern rolls around Belle Park in his wheelchair.
About a dozen tents and a few shacks dot the homeless encampment in Kingston, Ont., that he calls home.
“This is a family here and we look out for each other,” the 74-year-old says. “We do what we can. Like families, there’s some arguments, some fights, but people sort that stuff out.”
Hern says he left a shelter three months ago mostly due to fear of contracting COVID-19 and decided living outdoors was best.
The tent city at Belle Park has become a lightning rod in the debate about the homeless during the pandemic. There have been protests and counter protests and vitriol spewed in many directions.
The encampment sprouted up in the early days of the provincial lockdown.
That’s when Tom Greening, the executive director of Home Base Housing, was forced to make a difficult decision.
About 30 of the 35 people at the organization’s 24-hour winter respite site, which offers services to the underprivileged, started sneezing and coughing. Fearing a COVID-19 outbreak, he says he decided to shut down the site.
“On Monday morning at 8 a.m. we turned 35 people loose in downtown Kingston and told them they could not come back that night,” he says.
Many of those people camped out at city hall, which in turn drew more people in. The city eventually allowed the campers to live in Belle Park.
The city provided services to the camp, including power, washrooms and garbage dumpsters. At its peak, about 50 people lived there.
In July, the city council decided to end those services at the park in an effort to clear the camp.
Through the help of various community services, 11 people have since found permanent housing while 20 more now have interim housing, the city says. But about 10 people, including Hern, remain in the encampment.
The city recently opened up what it calls the “integrated care hub” in a recreation centre that allows people to come in to rest, eat and use various health and mental health services.
“A lot of the vulnerable residents that we have here are facing complex challenges, it’s not just about a place to live, it’s about the wraparound services and the care that they need,” says Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson.
The city has bought one property to help find homes for the homeless and is looking at others to buy or lease, the mayor says.
He says the care hub has been a “tremendous” success, but is only temporary.
“They’re running at capacity … and it’s just showed the need for services like that long term so we’re working with the province right now to help.”
Paterson says the city used emergency funds to get the care hub going, but will need money to make it last long term and since health care is under provincial jurisdiction, he needs the province to step up.
The city will be opening the recreation centre back up to the public in the fall and a new spot has been found for the care hub, but there are now people complaining about that location, local councillor Rob Hutchison says.
He says residents are worried about a repeat of the encampment, which is also in his district. Hutchison says he’s received complaints about garbage, drug paraphernalia, overdoses on driveways and people trespassing into backyards.
He also says that the people living on the streets need compassion, a helping hand, health services and affordable housing.
“So both sides are right, but that makes governance difficult,” Hutchison says.
The affordable housing crisis has deepened the last few decades without much help from the federal or provincial governments who favour developers over non-profit models, he says.
It is also notoriously difficult to find housing in Kingston with vacancy rates often well below one per cent, Hutchison says.
“It also turns out it’s very hard to find buildings that meet all the criteria you need to conduct a shelter, never mind the integrated care model we’re looking to bring,” he says.
Greening says Home Base has a solution using the new model — an idea he says is the future of helping the homeless.
The organization owns two properties and recently met with the city to detail the proposals, one for homeless youth and another for adults. They plan to offer small bachelor apartments rather than bunk bed or congregate-style living, which will help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
They plan to work with several dozen agencies to offer a wide variety of services on site, including mental health support, Greening says.
“I believe this is the model of the future,” he says.
That would give people a place to stay for six months to two years while receiving treatment as staff help find permanent housing for them.
“It’s more humane, the right thing to do and it’s still going to be cheaper to give people a door of their own then have them sleep on the streets,” Greening says.
Back at the encampment, Hern believes he will remain there for the long haul.
“I’m here until the last person is safely housed,” he says.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 26, 2020.
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press