City council is denying it, the police categorically say it isn't so, but homeless advocates are quite unequivocal that there is a hopped-up effort to sweep the streets while World Youth Day pilgrims flood the city. Last Friday at Bloor and Borden -- the site of a recent alleged cop beating of a homeless native man -- front-line workers met to offer their evidence that cops are quietly mounting a "cleanup" as the Pope's visit nears.
According to Naomi Johnson of Justice for Children, her organization has had several reports of homeless youth being told to stay out of sight. "They were told to clear out, move and/or leave Toronto for the next month, and that if they were not gone the police would come back to remove them."
Ahmed Ahmed, an outreach worker from Street Health, says, "The strongest evidence I've seen is youth being told that they have to be gone by mid-July from the city or be housed in a hostel." He says he has reports that city workers cleaning up the parks are harassing the homeless, giving them one day to clear out.
These people, he says, "have nowhere to go and are even being pushed off city benches. For World Youth Day they can't be on the streets, they can't be along the parade routes, they can't be where the big mass is going to be. City councillors have promised no sweeps, but I've been hearing too many stories to believe this."
Street Health worker Maurice Adongo says police have a credibility problem in this area. "Until the police chief himself comes out and says there will be no sweeps, no harassment of the homeless, I will not believe it."
Worries about what police might do to the city's vulnerable as Catholics gather have prompted the Canadian Auto Workers and the John Howard Society to send a letter and a petition respectively to police Chief Julian Fantino and city councillors articulating their concerns. The CAW has also called on Fantino to exercise restraint in policing the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty's "Pope Squat" later this month, which is aimed at focusing attention on Toronto's homeless crisis.
But city councillor Joe Mihevc maintains that the city has no desire to cause hardship for street people. "We came to a strong consensus that we didn't want, in particular the Catholic Church did not want, the streets swept of homeless people," insists Mihevc.
Police, too, insist they haven't mandated removals. According to a letter to the city written by Larry Sinclair, commander of the World Youth Day police unit, if there is violence against the homeless, "we want to know about it so we can nip it in the bud.' When NOW asks him whether there is any revved-up removal effort, his answer is categorical: "Absolutely not."