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Toronto confirms plans to clear Kensington Market encampment

A photo of an encampment outside St. Stephen-In-The-Field Church on Bellevue Avenue. A photo of an encampment outside St. Stephen-In-The-Field Church on Bellevue Avenue.
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The minister of a church in Kensington Market says she’s “heartbroken” and “extremely anxious” for those staying at an encampment there after receiving word that the city intends to evict its residents and clear the site on Friday morning.

Rev. Canon Maggie Helwig of St. Stephen-In-The-Field Anglican Church on Bellevue Avenue told CP24 that the City of Toronto’s Encampment Office informed them on Wednesday night that it plans to remove the makeshift camp, which is located on a small plot of private and city-owned land just west of the church, sometime between 7 and 9 a.m. on Friday.

“We have been told by other sources as well that there is the intention to fully fence off the site to prevent any further occupation,” said Helwig, who noted that this news was communicated by phone, as the city typically does, despite their previous requests for written notification.

“Some of the people who are here have been here for nearly two years now. This is their home. It is the closest thing to a home some of them have had for a very long time,” she said.

Helwig went on to say that the encampment’s residents “depend heavily” on the support they receive from the church and nearby agencies.

“We are seeing people stabilizing and becoming healthier because they have a single place to be rather than being chased from park to park, and from doorway to doorway. All of that is being put at risk now,” she said.

The church, she said, provides those staying at the encampment with access to first aid, social support services including a peer support worker, friendship and counselling as well as church resources, if they want them.

The west-end-based Neighbourhood Group Community Services also provides the residents with mental health case workers, peer support workers, housing workers, and addiction counsellors among other things, Helwig said, adding the encampment has become a place where people “feel like there's someone who cares about them.”

Rev. Canon Maggie Helwig is the minister of St. Stephen-In-The-Field Anglican Church on Bellevue Avenue.

Last month, a city spokesperson told CP24.com that a Street Occupation Permit had been issued for the property.

The city also said at that time that “any tent or structure that encroaches on a City park or right-of-way for the purpose of living or occupying a space is subject to a trespass notice or notice of violation followed by enforcement.” The latest Notice of Violation was issued to the encampment occupants on Sept. 15.

In a written statement provided to CP24 late Thursday afternoon, a city spokesperson confirmed its plan to clear the site on Friday.

“Due to the continuing and immediate public safety risk at the encampment located on the City-owned right-of-way located near 103 Bellevue Ave., the City of Toronto will service the encampment tomorrow,” Russell Baker confirmed.

“While this is a tool of last resort, we must address the accumulation of combustible and hoarded materials on site, posing substantial risk to both those encamped there and those in the surrounding area, including the church located at this address.”

Baker said that roughly eight people remain at the site, all of whom were provided notice of the planned work on Tuesday and will be receiving information about next steps later today. He also said that shelter spaces have been offered to everyone staying there.

A photo of the St. Stephen-In-The-Field encampment taken by Toronto Fire Services on November 7. (City of Toronto photo)

St. Stephen-In-The-Field said about a month ago, they learned that a group named Friends of Bellevue Parkette had obtained a special permit to build a pollinator garden where the encampment is located.

The church told CP24 that it quickly hired a lawyer and sought an urgent injunction to stop the imminent eviction.

Helwig said that during the course of that legal process, the “permit disappeared as an argument” as the city claimed that it was issued "in error" because it believed that the group was affiliated with the church.

The City of Toronto has confirmed that a permit was issued for the right-of-way land fronting 103 Bellevue Ave.

"This was not a City project and the permit has since been revoked,” it said.

Last week, in response to that special court order, the City of Toronto instead presented evidence to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice about why this encampment presents an urgent fire and life-safety concern, citing the “dense accumulation of combustible material” and the “excess of hoarded materials.” It also noted that there have been three fires at this encampment in the past 10 months, the most recent one occurring just this month.

On Monday, the court denied St. Stephen’s request for an injunction, paving the way for the city to move forward with the clearing of this site.

Helwig said that they had even offered to settle the matter by moving everyone off the property for a day so that cleaning and fire hazard mitigation could take place, but that offer was rejected.

Screen captures of video showing the aftermath of a fire at the St. Stephen-In-The-Field encampment on April 11. (City of Toronto photo)

This isn’t the first time that the residents of this encampment on the edge of Kensington Market have faced the threat of eviction.

Helwig said previously, other city councillors and the mayor stepped in to stop the encampment outside St. Stephen-In-The-Field Church from being cleared, however she worries that they’ve now run out of options.

“The city is a big complex organism. I don't know exactly who's behind this, but I believe that we have exhausted what we can do politically,” she said.

CP24 has made several attempts to contact local Coun. Dianne Saxe for comment, but we have not heard back.

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