7. 22. 2022

One Year After Lamport Stadium

Encampment Support Network Parkdale

July 21 marked the one-year anniversary of the City of Toronto’s
militarized eviction of the encampment at Lamport Stadium Park. Lamport was one of several large encampments that sprang up when the COVID-19 pandemic caused mass shelter closures, only to be demolished when the city violently enforced its anti-camping bylaws a year later. Hundreds of police, City of Toronto Corporate Security officers, and private security guards were mobilized to fence in Lamport residents and their supporters for hours. 

In the early afternoon, nearly 100 riot cops filed out of the stadium and gathered on the south side of the encampment. When they began to form a line to advance, residents and supporters alike grabbed banners and wooden signs adorned with slogans – “Safer Here Together,” “We Take Care of Each Other” – which supporters had painted with residents just days before. We mirrored the cops’ formation, with a line that stretched through the middle of the encampment from the edge of the stadium to the fence, and began to chant. Meanwhile, supporters outside the fence began to breach it, and police had to rush over to stop the flow of people entering, with pepper spray and violent arrests. The cops proceeded to regroup, extending their batons before clearing the park by force, throwing several supporters into tents and charging at some on horseback. 

Supporters suffered head wounds and concussions, with some ending up in casts for weeks afterwards. In the end, 40 people were arrested. After spending several hours in a court services vehicle, most were released with $65 trespassing tickets. When we gathered outside 14 Division for hours, sharing food and playing music, to demand the release of seven encampment supporters arrested on criminal charges, the cops indiscriminately pepper-sprayed people again and brutally arrested four more amid the ensuing chaos.

What is perhaps most commonly discussed about the eviction at Lamport Stadium Park is the outright cruelty that the City of Toronto and its police force unleashed against unhoused people and their supporters. But what appears to be missing from the conversation, a year after the media frenzy ignited by the evictions – and what may indeed provide a modicum of hope to those of us who shun state violence – is the transformational role that community resistance played on that day, and what we can learn from Lamport as organizers.

A number of encampment supporters link arms in front of a row of cops.

A summer of escalating resistance

The now-defunct citywide Encampment Support Network (ESN) was formed in the early pandemic as a response to the city’s refusal to provide basic aid to encampment residents in a crisis. It comprised five neighbourhood committees: Scadding, Moss Park, Little Norway Park/Cherry Beach, Trinity Bellwoods, and our group in Parkdale, which remains active and in a process of transition. In the course of doing daily outreach to their local encampment, members built deep relationships of solidarity with residents, which laid the foundation for collective struggle.

The July 2021 eviction of Lamport Stadium wasn’t the first time the City of Toronto had tried to clear residents out of that space. Two months earlier, the city had made Lamport the site of its first attempted clearing of a major encampment that year – an attempt that failed after around 150 community supporters flooded into the park, escalating a routine operation into a situation unmanageable for the city. This win made the value of collective resistance more tangible to residents than any conversation ever could. They knew that the city would likely return to Lamport with greater force, and we spent the following weeks scouting from the parking lot of the nearby St. Felix Centre respite site, running through scenarios and packs of inexpensive cigarettes. Residents talked about their bigger dreams – a large field where anyone could stay; a building that could facilitate the social relationships they relied on in the park, instead of severing them. Not just what they needed to live, but to live well.    

Predictably, the city and police drastically escalated their tactics, drawing on models developed in Philadelphia and San Francisco, to try to guarantee that future encampment clearings would succeed. The size of Toronto’s encampments required a heightened degree of coordination between the city’s various departments, which also created a heightened possibility of leaks. Throughout the summer, we were tipped off about the city’s eviction plans, which allowed us to mobilize residents to plan a response. 

When the city moved to evict encampment residents at Trinity Bellwoods Park in June of last year, those of us who had been invited to stay overnight in the encampment witnessed Toronto police scouting from the rooftop of the Trinity Community Recreation Centre in the early morning hours. By 6 AM, TTC busloads of private security guards had arrived at the park. Borrowing a tactic used three months earlier in Los Angeles as part of the Echo Park encampment raid, city workers began fencing in encamped areas of the park around 9 AM, to prevent a critical mass of supporters from protectively surrounding residents’ dwellings as they had done at Lamport Stadium in May. 

After police cleared residents and their belongings out of the park’s largely undefended north camp, violently arresting an encampment leader they’d been surveilling for months, they retreated to the community centre to develop a plan for the south. By that time, hundreds of supporters had gathered outside the fence, and police reacted with horses and pepper spray. Drones hovered overhead, as they’d continue to do all day. Many people reported that their phones seemed like they’d been blocked from sending and receiving images and video. 

Supporters breached the fence twice throughout the day, which dramatically increased the number of people inside its perimeter. After several hours spent surrounding dwellings in the June heat, distributing food, drinks, battery packs, and cigarettes that had been tossed over the fence, hundreds of supporters were told to leave the encampment voluntarily. Police had disclosed to ESN’s police liaisons their intention to violently move in on the south camp, saying that they’d allow residents and a selection of ESN members to remain in the camp to pack their belongings on the condition that the rest of the supporters leave. After some back and forth, the crowd largely complied, which left a handful of people inside, including Indigenous supporters who were tending a ceremonial fire. Soon afterwards, dozens of officers assembled in formation and advanced on the few supporters who remained. The cops trampled the ceremonial fire and assaulted people who tried to surround it, shoving people toward a narrow opening in the fence. In the process, three supporters were arrested and a resident who had been making arrangements to pack up was forced out of the encampment without her belongings. One resident who had been given some additional time to pack was arrested the next day when she tried to scale the fence to retrieve her remaining effects.

Despite public backlash, the city used its police to ramp up state violence and make sure its goal of zero encampments would be met – at whatever cost ($2 million just in the summer of 2021, to be exact).

The city clearly intended its second attempt to evict Lamport to be its last. Its plan incorporated learnings from its failures at previous encampment clearings – but we’d been taking notes too. The city conducted an eviction at Alexandra Park the day prior to returning to Lamport, in an attempt to exhaust supporters and limit our ability to respond. Unlike at Bellwoods, where security forces started erecting fencing only at 9 AM, which allowed many more people – including media – to witness and document the day’s events, at Lamport they began setting up fencing at 6 AM. Anticipating this attempt to exclude the media, we called a press conference for 7 AM. Security forces used metal strapping instead of plastic zip ties to join fencing panels, to ensure those would be harder to breach. They barricaded alleyways and strategically positioned the perimeter to block an entire street, making it more difficult for the public to witness the acts of brutality that would follow.

The ESN organizers responding that day had internalized lessons from previous encampment evictions. After Trinity Bellwoods, supporters understood that we were resisting the violence of displacement itself; we understood that despite claims from city workers and police, our presence wasn’t the cause of that displacement, and standing down would not prevent it. We knew the options for residents outside the fence were grim, and that the encampment itself was merely a symptom of a broader, if less visible, crisis. 

The Lamport Stadium encampment was destroyed that day. The city trashed residents’ dwellings and belongings. Some residents were shuffled away to the adjacent respite centre, while several others were left sleeping on the ground in front of it. A month later, a resident died of an overdose, alone in an alleyway that was walking distance from Lamport. He was discovered by another Lamport resident several hours afterwards. Some of the community members who had showed up to support encampment residents lost their jobs, or had to take extended leave because of the injuries and trauma they sustained that day. 

But when we set out to reconnect with residents the morning after Lamport, some proudly showed us media interviews they’d done the day before, saying that they’d never imagined supporters would show up for them in the way they had. One resident was so moved by what he’d seen that he tried to convince us it had all been a win. The media scrutiny and public outcry around the events of the day did force the city to call off its planned eviction of the summer’s other major encampment, located in Moss Park, and to pivot its encampment response in general – for the time being, at least.

Encampment supporters hold a banner that says

The city’s machinery recalibrates

Knowing the city had no plans to house encampment residents after destroying their homes and possessions, Encampment Support Network Parkdale facilitated the relocation of many of those residents to Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto’s west end.

Throughout the remainder of 2021, as evictions proceeded in other parks, the unhoused population at Dufferin Grove quickly grew. In the fall, the city – whose strategy of violent displacement was untenable in the face of steadfast organized resistance and mounting public scrutiny – finally attempted a pilot project that provided in Dufferin Grove some of the services that encampment residents had been consistently asking for. Tax and ID clinics were set up in the park, and outreach workers offered genuine permanent housing options. 25 residents secured permanent housing as a result

The Dufferin Grove pilot project, enacted as a result of encampment residents’ and supporters’ resistance to militarized clearings, offered a glimpse of what it might look like for the city to treat unhoused people with dignity. It’s deeply shameful that a “pilot” was required to get the city to that point – and even more shameful that the city has not meaningfully attempted to replicate that pilot at the same scale in the months since. 

The city measured that pilot project’s success not by the number of people who were housed, but by the number of tents that were removed. It stayed focused on reducing the visibility of encampments rather than meeting the needs of the people living in them. While about two dozen residents were able to access permanent housing directly upon moving out of the park, approximately 80 others were referred to indoor shelter hotel spaces instead. Although the city promised to continue to follow up about permanent housing with people who accepted shelter hotel spots, this was often not the case. Many residents returned to the park to reconnect with their community, or because the indoor shelter spaces were inadequate or unsafe. With 24-hour private security surveilling the park, new arrivals were often swarmed immediately and told to take down their tent. In a handful of instances, residents, including minors, were offered $100 on the spot to leave the park right away. When residents were considered non-cooperative, city workers would take their tents down while they were away. Even when adopting a supposedly “human rights”-focused approach in Dufferin Grove Park, the city’s encampment strategy remained dedicated to invisibilizing homelessness.

That strategy persists today, even as city officials stage bureaucratic performances of concern about last summer’s violence. Just last week, on July 14, the municipal ombudsman’s office released an interim report on the city’s treatment of encampments and their residents. The report, released five days before the July city council meetings, laid out a series of “early recommendations” to be implemented “immediately to improve the fairness of [the city’s] response to encampments.” The recommendations include “clearly outlining the Encampment Office’s role and mandate, sharing this information publicly, and ensuring it has enough resources to effectively carry out its duties.” During the city council meeting on July 19, the ombudsman’s recommendations were adopted, with amendments from Councillors Mike Layton and Robin Buxton Potts. The latter’s original amendment, which called for a moratorium on encampment evictions, was ruled “out of order” by the city’s legal department, which said city council cannot direct enforcement. Buxton Potts then submitted a new amendment calling instead on the city to “further develop and implement” the Dufferin Grove pilot project. Councillor Layton’s amendment called for the city manager to make any “funding or staffing changes necessary” to fulfill the interim report’s recommendations. 

During the same meeting, city council voted in favour of the mayor’s candidate for interim city manager: Tracey Cook, a former police officer and key player in last summer’s militarized encampment evictions. The approval of Cook as interim city manager, along with the latitude granted to the city manager to better resource Toronto’s shadily defined Encampment Office, allows the city to claim to be adopting a more “humane” approach to dealing with encampments – without accountability. This is particularly troubling in light of the coercive aspects of the Dufferin Grove pilot project, and given the city’s continued refusal to impose a moratorium on evictions.

A crowd of encampment residents and supporters stand behind a barricade. A colourful sign on the barricade reads

We’re still here

Earlier this year, Toronto announced $1 million in park-related contracts with private security firms. Last week, city staff and police destroyed tents at Allan Gardens and outside the Church of the Holy Trinity, and attempted (and failed) to carry out a clearing at Clarence Square. Encampment residents at Clarence Square have endured constant threats, surveillance, and other violence from city staff, corporate security, and police. While some city workers have been attempting to connect encampment residents with housing and support, that work is frequently undone by this ongoing harassment campaign. How can a housing worker provide effective outreach to a resident who has just had their home and belongings destroyed? Why would anyone trust a system that criminalizes their very existence?

Despite weeks of threats, wrongful arrests, tents taken, and possessions destroyed, the encampment at Clarence Square is still intact. That it remains so is a testament to how woefully inadequate the city’s present “housing plan” is, and to the strength of collective resistance from encampment residents and supporters alike. 

Our organizing at Lamport Stadium forced the city to implement the Dufferin Grove pilot project, demonstrating that when left with no other option, the city can secure permanent housing for encampment residents, accommodating even those with complex needs. Some of those newly housed people have since joined us in our organizing work, not only because they’ve seen it win tangible gains, but also to fend off the isolation and boredom of living alone, no longer as preoccupied with the tasks of daily survival. Their new housing has also provided a stability that helps them fight for themselves and their communities – for people living in parks and ravines, in the shelter system, and in non-profit housing and Toronto Community Housing buildings.    

The city continues to invisibilize homelessness, and its refusal to implement a moratorium on evictions means the threat of enforcement is always looming. But encampment residents and supporters have demonstrated our willingness and ability to resist whatever comes our way. We understand that we can turn only to each other, not the state, for protection and support. We’ve learned innumerable lessons about the power of solidarity between unhoused and housed people. And we’ll continue to resist our common enemies. 

Encampment Support Network (ESN) Parkdale is a group of housed and unhoused neighbours supporting each other and fighting back.

All photos by Joshua Best.