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'A breakdown of very serious proportions'

Region promises new approach to homeless encampments following outrage over Kitchener incident
Encampment removal at Stirling and Charles

After regional staff used of a front-end loader to clear away tents and other belongings from a homeless encampment in Kitchener last Friday, Waterloo region’s CAO says it’s time to “step back and take a more human-centric approach” to these situations.

Bruce Lauckner joined the region’s commissioner of planning, development and legislative services Rod Regier in promising to collaborate with area municipalities on a new protocol that ensures “residents and their belongings are treated with respect and dignity” going forward. 

The mea culpa from two of the region’s top officials comes after bylaw posted notice of trespass at the small encampment on regional property at Charles and Stirling early last week, giving the people there a notice to vacate by Friday. 

Regier said mobile homeless outreach services were encouraged to provide information on shelter availability in the following days and all but two individuals living in three tents on the site had vacated the property when bylaw arrived Friday morning.

The two that remained told staff they didn’t intend to leave. That’s when police officers were called. Regier said there was no confrontation and the two remaining people vacated the space by 2 p.m.

“Due to concerns about generally unsanitary conditions  large items such as couches and a mattress, and drug paraphernalia, including exposed sharps  the cleanup approach included employment of a road maintenance crew with heavy equipment,” Regier said, adding use of the front-end loader "does not reflect the dignity of those living at the encampment."

Calling the move “a complete operational and governance breakdown,” Coun. Sean Strickland demanded a rethink of whatever policy allowed it to happen. 

“It was a disproportionate amount of force used on a vulnerable population.” 

He also called it “very unfortunate considering all the work the region has done in providing additional supports for affordable housing and the homeless.

“This was a breakdown of very serious proportions,” he added, saying such a sensitive operation should have at least resulted in a briefing of the regional chair and council on what was planned.

“I would suggest, because as the homeless situation continues to intensify and these problems become more and more complex, that we establish a protocol on how to deal with these situations in the future, which include approvals within the organization and the the appropriate approvals from council,” Strickland said.

Lauckner agreed.

“I think it’s important that we reflect on a different way forward, that we learn how to better support our staff in these circumstances and give them alternative approaches,” he said. 

Strickland wasn’t the only councillor who appeared visibly frustrated with staff during a briefing on the outcome Monday.

Tom Galloway said he was so upset by it he decided to attend a rally at the site on Sunday to show his support for the homeless community.

Councillors said they were inundated with emails conveying the same outrage all weekend.

“I am deeply ashamed to live in a city where this is considered a solution for our community members who are experiencing homelessness,” wrote Johnna Whitson.

“The fact that a successful pilot (A Better Tent City) can’t find a permanent home and the House of Friendship is without shelter space to use, while WRPS has the audacity to ask for a $12.4 million budget increase shows how little the region cares about the most vulnerable in our community,” wrote Anne Blayney. “No caring community does this. No innovative community does this.”

Coun. Berry Vrbanovic said the decision to bring in the front-end loader was “not a textbook approach” but he thanked the CAO and commissioner for owning the mistake.

“Today I think collectively, as an organization and as a council, we’re saying we need to do better,” he said.