front-line workers have always considered Anglican officials from St. James Cathedral at the corner of King and Jarvis sympathetic to the poor who flock to their grounds. But earlier this month, activists were shocked to discover the church helping to coordinate a police raid on homeless people sleeping on their property.The sweep resulted in the eviction of approximately 20 people, even though the church had earlier given them explicit permission to squat there. The church says it had no choice but to approve the police raid, a far cry from the stirring address Anglican archbishop Terence Finlay made on March 8 of this year to a crowd of the homeless.
"Christians have a duty to take action," he told them. "We can't close our eyes to the injustice, suffering and tremendous waste of human promise that lie in the wake of our housing crisis."
The police say they are just responding to complaints from neighbours, while the neighbourhood association insists they haven't made the complaints. The homeless blame each other. And social activists and labour unions are planning a demonstration.
In other words, the messy annual summer battle over downtown parks is unfolding as scheduled, as thousands are forced onto the streets by the spring closing of the Out of the Cold shelter program.
There are, however, a couple of new factors: the situation seems to be worse than ever, and news coverage of the issue has hit a bizarre, all-time low.
"The cathedral had been working with the people sleeping in the park to try to come up with a solution," says St. James spokesperson Gollisa Thomson, explaining the events that led up to the raid.
"What we were asking them to do was to just tidy up during the day. But unfortunately, the situation was starting to get out of control. It was starting to become unhygienic. There were needles and syringes -- it just wasn't a healthy place. Then on Wednesday, July 4, the police actually notified us that they were going to come through on Thursday to do a sweep. And we agreed to cooperate with them."
Staff sergeant Dave Bowen of 52 Division community response unit estimates that a "dozen to 20 people" were removed from the park during the early-morning sweep. No charges were laid, but the evicted people were warned that they would be charged with trespassing if found there again.
"That's something we do every morning at various parks within the division. Community groups and residents complain throughout all the city. So St. James is not the only park."
Edward Nixon, president of the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood Association, says, "Knee-jerk responses from the police are not a long-term solution" to the housing crisis. He stresses that his association, unlike other downtown residents groups, has not adopted a drive-out-the-homeless attitude.
He concedes, however, that some of the "newer residents" have complained to him and may also have called the authorities.
The homeless who were evicted also have strong words for the police.
"I think the cops did the raids in an unmannerly fashion. If we can't sleep in the church grounds, and the hostels are full, and they kick you out for no reason, where are you going to sleep?" asks Tim, who, like many of the other evictees, has now moved to the Metropolitan Church park a couple of blocks north.
However, many of the other homeless place a large part of the blame on the unruly minority of homeless who ruin things for everyone else, "the crackheads, psychiatric patients, "bad apples' and phony homeless," says another man staying at the Metropolitan Church park. "It's just because of all these summer fucking homeless, these little twinkies that are coming down from the suburbs. They're causing so much grief."
Community workers and social activists say the phenomenon of homeless people blaming each other is as common as the police sweeps.
The police response, say activists, remains familiar from past years as well, with rival cops from 51 and 52 Divisions kicking the homeless into each other's parks like a soccer ball.
What's different about this summer's situation, they say, is that the parks are becoming as overcrowded and dangerous as the shelter system, which, according to Hostel Services, is far over capacity, with a 94-per-cent occupancy rate. (Anything over 90 per cent is considered full.)
To protest the police crackdown and the ongoing housing crisis, groups including the Committee to Stop Targeted Policing, OCAP, OPSEU, CUPE, the Toronto and York Region Labour Council and the United Steelworkers have planned a noon-hour rally in St. James Park on Saturday (July 29).
"It's essential to stop this war on the poor being waged under the banner of the war on drugs, and the attempt of wealthier residents to claim public space for themselves," says CSTP's Susan Bender.