[Hpn] Toronto Star article on Tent City Eviction

Graeme Bacque gbacque@colosseum.com
Wed, 25 Sep 2002 05:54:22 -0700


September 25, 2002 The Toronto Star

Owners send in guards to remove residents
By Moira Welsh and Michelle Shephard
STAFF REPORTERS

Private security guards and police swept through Toronto's Tent City
shantytown yesterday, peacefully evicting squatters who vowed for years that
they wouldn't leave without a bloody battle.

Hired by the building supplies store Home Depot, which owns the 4.45-hectare
waterfront property, and accompanied by Toronto police officers, the guards
removed about 50 residents who were home during the 11 a.m. raid.

Police laid two charges during the eviction  a woman who police said
punched and spat on a security guard was charged with assault, while another
resident was charged with possession of marijuana. Police also took a woman
to a detox centre.

A team of workers hired by Home Depot quickly put up a preliminary wire
fence and cement blocks that would soon grow to a 3-metre fence with barbed
wire, one employee explained. A team of workers in white coveralls began
cutting the grass and weeds along the fence.

The company posted guards at the site, though they were letting some Tent
City residents in last night to retrieve their belongings. The people will
have up to 72 hours to get their things.

About 100 Tent City residents, activists and sympathizers lashed out at Home
Depot at a rally in front of the shantytown in the late afternoon.

Confusion reigned as people waited, some for hours, to get their few
belongings. Many wondered aloud where they would go. Shouted one man: "If we
get our stuff, there's nowhere to put it."

As many as 110 homeless people have been squatting on the land at Lake Shore
Blvd. E. and Cherry St.; some have lived there for nearly five years.

"Most of us were in Tent City because we didn't want to be in shelters,"
said Eddie Johnston last night at Woodgreen Community Centre, where some
people were being put up for the night. "Now you're trying to push us back
into the shelters."

Although Home Depot gave residents no warning of their eviction, news spread
quickly yesterday morning and the guards and police were met by dozens of
reporters and television cameras when they marched into the shantytown.

"Leave voluntarily now!" a security guard shouted."Should you choose to
resist leaving the property at this time, you will be physically removed and
possibly face charges of trespassing on private property."

Vernon Chehowski was trying to cycle to his home to pick up his belongings
when the guards ordered him out. Sam Rojik, as he later recounted still
waving a role of toilet paper, was sitting on a portable toilet.

It was the day Rainer Driemayer had feared for four years. He was taken out
without being able to grab his bike or pictures of his children.

One of the residents, Dougie, stood outside his shack, his mouth hanging
open as the guards told him to go immediately or face arrest.

"Just let me get my dog first," Dougie said, "I've got a 140-pound
Rottweiler in there, let me bring her with me."

"No," a guard told him. "Leave her there."

Mary Halton, a Home Depot spokesperson, said the company contracted the
security firm "several weeks ago" to create an action plan for the
residents' removal. They sent their own security officers to Tent City to
"monitor" the actions of the residents and were unhappy with the reports
they received.

"We were seeing an increased risk to health and safety, particularly an
increase in criminal behaviour," Halton said. "We came to understand that
there was potentially drug dealing on the site and prostitutes on the site.
In addition to people adding on to the structures, they were extremely
unsafe from a fire perspective.

"There were illegal hydro hook-ups. This site was unsafe for people to be
on."

Halton said that the company had been working with the city for years,
trying to find a solution to the shantytown issue. Finally, in late July,
Home Depot proposed an idea to pave over its land and let residents stay 
safe from the contamination of toxic heavy metals in the soil  until an
alternative location could be found.

When the city demanded the company go through a lengthy zoning process,
Halton said Home Depot abandoned the plans and prepared for the squatters'
removal.

City Councillor Jack Layton said he was devastated when Home Depot abandoned
the idea to erect safe, affordable housing on that site.

"They were being model citizens, I thought, but then they put the case over
to their lawyers and all of a sudden they were walking away from the table,"
Layton said last night. "We are so disappointed."

Home Depot will have 24-hour guards on site for the foreseeable future, as
they lay down a bed of gravel to contain the toxic dust, Halton said. She
added that Home Depot has no plans to put a store on the site.

City Councillor Olivia Chow says she expected that one day Tent City would
be closed down, but why it happened yesterday, without any notice to
council, has left her questioning the motives behind the sudden eviction.

She said yesterday she believes there are two possibilities behind the Home
Depot decision. One is that they were fed up with negative press coverage,
especially from a recent New York Times article that described the
waterfront blight.

The other theory is that the U.S.-based company is trying to position itself
for a lucrative deal with the city, once a waterfront revitalization project
gets under way. The land is seen as key to any plans for sprucing up the
city's gateway to Lake Ontario.

But Halton said the company has no such expectations.

"Whatever the reason, it's a sad day for Toronto," said Chow.

Last night, she announced that the city has enacted "a critical incident
response protocol" of the type reserved for disasters. Standing in the dark
on Cherry St., outside the east gate to the former Tent City, she told
former residents to go to the Woodgreen centre on Queen St. E., where she
said they would be given food. She promised that about 40 people could also
sleep there and that others would be housed temporarily in motels.

Phil Brown, general manager of housing, shelter, and support for the city
got a cool reception when he arrived at the community centre last night. He
announced that just 14 motel rooms were available, in addition to the dozens
of shelter beds that had been opened up.

Residents weren't happy about going to shelters, but Brown tried to defuse
the situation.

"We knew nothing about this," he said. We're here to help. It's going to be
one night at a time."

In addition to Woodgreen's 40 beds, the protocols Chow referred to let the
city open 70 more beds in shelters and possibly hotels across Toronto.

By 4 p.m., responding to the dozens of desperate calls, a worker with the
street help line said 55 beds were added at various city shelters, in
addition to the space announced by Chow.

The news of what the city intended to do elicited a wry smile from Cathy
Crowe, a street nurse at the Queen West Community Health Centre and a member
of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, who had been at the site since
hearing news of the eviction.

"They recognize this as an emergency," she said. "Given the eviction, that's
what they should have done."

By noon, with the residents removed, a stream of bulldozers, large
lawnmowers, light stands and a truck carrying two portable washrooms drove
through the gated entrance, their path secured by a line of officers.

"I can't even think straight right now," said resident Vernon Chehowski.
"Things were going good, but now I don't know what I'm going to do."

Dougie seemed to take things in stride despite not knowing where he would
sleep last night. "My old lady already told me to take the dog to the humane
society," he said, looking at Cleo, the Rottweiler the pair rescued after it
was abandoned on Christmas Eve two years ago.

Nick Yalousakis, a retired city resident who watched the eviction take place
behind the blocked fence, saying, "They live like pigs, but if they move
them from here, what are they going to do with them. They come in like the
Gestapo and throw them out. What's wrong with this country?"

Joanne Wright rode her bike to the Cherry St. entrance. She was returning to
her Tent City home after showering at a nearby homeless shelter. She said
Home Depot, just last weekend, offered to pay Tent City dwellers $30 to
clear up the grounds "and the rest of us did it for free." She was mystified
about why Home Depot donated wood for the squatters to build homes.

"It's surprising they'd do it in this manner, with no warning," said
Driemayer, the man known at Tent City as "Dri," as he stood outside the
gate.

"But when you're living in a situation like this, this is something you
expect each and every day.

"If you go somewhere to do something ... every time you come back, you're
hoping you're going to be able to go home."


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With files from Betsy Powell, Jim Wilkes, John Duncanson, Andrew Chung and
Melissa Leong