A collapsed tent and and patio umbrella are shown on the site of a homeless encampment that was dismantled one day prior in St. Thomas. Photo taken on Thursday July 20, 2023. Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press

Some advocates for the homeless in St. Thomas are divided over the city’s sudden tear-down of an encampment in the fallout of an alleged assault on the site.

Heavy equipment was brought in this week to tear down the encampment along Victor Drive, where at least seven people had lived in tents and make-shift structures. Police and municipal officials had been monitoring the encampment for weeks but said it became a safety concern following a “violent attack” on a resident living there.

The clearing of the encampment – which police say took on a “compassionate approach” – has been backed by some advocates but met with frustration from others.

“I think there could have been a lot better planning on (the city and police’s) part,” said Amanda Zielinski, chair of The Nameless, a St. Thomas agency that supports people experiencing homelessness.

“They were reactive, instead of proactive, to a violent situation that happened a couple of nights ago.”

The exact details of the alleged assault at the camp early Tuesday were not clear, but police said a man living there was attacked with weapons. He was taken to hospital and remains there, police spokesperson Samantha Wakefield said Thursday.

No arrests had been made and the investigation was ongoing on Thursday, she said.

St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston said workers with the city’s mental health outreach team were on site to provide services and support to campers.

“By the middle of (Wednesday) afternoon, everybody who had been there had been offered a place for the night,” he said.

A few of the residents went to The Inn Out of the Cold shelter downtown, while others already sorted their housing accommodations, said Brian Elliot, the shelter’s executive director.

Elliot applauded the city’s approach to clearing the camp, saying officials “made sure there were places and spots open” for campers.

“The challenge with encampments is it really doesn’t help provide individuals a pathway to get out of homelessness,” he said.

“When they’re with community agencies, we have the ability to provide supports and address needs they have to start them on the path of becoming not homeless.”

But not everyone views shelters as an adequate alternative, often because of safety concerns or fears they will be kicked out, Zielinski said.

“There need to be safe camping options in the city because there are always going to be people who are restricted from (shelters). There’s always going to be individuals who have no other options as safe places to stay,” she said.

As the city of 45,000 continues to grow, Zielinski suggested St. Thomas officials work with local agencies to find a “better approach” to encampments. She pointed to the City of London’s temporary mobile depots that offer access to things such as food, water and washrooms for homeless populations.

“I want to get closer to what London has, where they support safe camping. Because camping is going to happen. (Camps have existed) as long as homelessness has been around,” she said.

London city council approved the $100,000 encampment response last month. The effort has drawn fire from critics who say it’ll only make the encampments more entrenched. But city politicians who backed the depots considered it a necessary step.

Preston said St. Thomas takes on a “multi-pronged, multi-agency” approach to dealing with encampments.

“We don’t just say, ‘Move along.’ That’s not the point. The point is ‘Your safety is important to us. We need to make sure that you are safe outside also, whatever month of the year it is,’” he said.

Preston said long-term, supportive housing remains a priority for council. The city and Indwell are expected to open 45 one-bedroom units next month, creating even more capacity to get more people off the streets, he said.

“We still have the capacity (at our emergency shelter), and we will have even more coming shortly.”

cleon@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/CalviatLFPress

By Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jul 20, 2023 at 15:45

This item reprinted with permission from   London Free Press   London, Ontario
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