How Occupy Toronto is Failing the Homeless

OpenFile, November 15, 2011

                Dean Bradley

                Dean Bradley

[OpenFile is no more; archived version here]

The Occupy Toronto movement has been encamped in St. James Park for nearly a month, but Alison Stone has been sleeping in the park for a lot longer than that. The young homeless woman, who wears thick glasses and has burgundy streaks through her dark hair, is one of a number of people who regularly spent nights there before the occupiers moved in. When they did, she wasn’t happy about it. “At first, I was like, ‘get out of my park,’” she says. “After a while I found a community here, but most of the other people who had been living here aren’t as okay with it.”

Occupy Toronto has been both beneficial and difficult for the sizeable homeless population that lives in and around St. James Park. The benefit, says outreach worker Gregory Cook, is that “people can stay there, have a positive experience, and be part of a community. But there are also some people who feel displaced and frustrated.”

The area is surrounded by a network of resources for people on the streets: as recently as the late '90s there were around 2,000 beds in the area for homeless people according to veteran anti-poverty activist Gaetan Heroux, and many of Toronto’s major drop-in centres and service providers, like All Saints drop-in and Council Fire, are in this neighbourhood as well.

Setting up a large-scale urban encampment in a park that is home to an often unstable and struggling homeless population is bound to cause tension. Some area outreach workers like David Opheim, director of the All Saints Community Centre, wonder about the extent to which Occupy organizers had thought about how to interact with the park’s homeless before moving in. Jay, a member of the movement who works with the marshalls, the group of occupiers charged with keeping the encampment safe (and who asked to be referred to by only his first name), says “there was a huge argument on day one or day two about previous residents [of the park]—some occupiers didn’t want to give the homeless anything, some did.” He fell into the latter group.

The relationship between occupiers and the homeless has indeed been rocky, and at times violent. Greg, another member of Occupy Toronto who works with the marshalls, admits that there have been incidents between the occupiers and the homeless, particularly involving individuals struggling with substance abuse. Greg was present at a situation where a man who was not a member of Occupy Toronto walked up and punched an occupier in the face at a General Assembly. Stephen Spencer Davis, a reporter who has been covering the movement, also says he saw an occupier push a homeless man into a bush a punch him repeatedly until another occupier intervened. Afterward, members of Occupy said there had been tension between the two for some time before the fight broke out.

The marshalls practice conflict resolution techniques to diffuse these situations, but Jay notes that recently the movement has been struggling with “a phenomenon where an occupier will try and intervene in an incident, but is not trained in de-escalation. We're having some issues with mob mentality," he says, suggesting that sometimes occupiers, overzealous about helping to break up a fight, can become more of a problem than the original conflict.

This doesn’t surprise Heroux. “Some [members of Occupy Toronto] might have some experience dealing with people on the streets,” he says, “but for others this would be their first introduction to it.”

Anne Marie Batten, a crisis nurse and street outreach worker who has been advising Occupy Toronto, adds that “sleep deprivation and the stresses of communal living can exacerbate things like personality clashes.” Jay agrees that things would be better if the movement had more volunteers. As it is, some marshalls work 24 hour shifts because they’re understaffed.

As public scrutiny of the Occupy movement has increased—both the death of a woman at Occupy Vancouver and a non-life threatening overdose at Occupy Toronto have cast a renewed spotlight on the protests recently—the situation has only gotten more complex. “With Occupy Toronto, they’re so worried about incidents so they don’t get kicked out,” Heroux explains, talking about the group’s decision to enact a no-alcohol, no-drugs policy at the site. “Trying to enforce a no-alcohol policy in a park that, for some people is the only place they have to drink, because they don’t have a home…it’s problematic. People who have been left for years and years on the street will self-medicate. The question is, what is your response to that?”

Darcy Beland, a homeless man who’s thinking about joining the encampment, is also wondering how the movement as a whole will choose to engage with the problems the homeless face. “Not everyone’s on par with their thinking,” he says.

“There’s an agenda here. Some people want to help the homeless, but there are also people who are just fighting for themselves.”

As for Alison, the young homeless woman, she wants more of the people she knows from the old days at St. James Park to get involved in the movement. “A lot of them don’t have hope for what this might accomplish,” she says. I ask her if she has hope that Occupy can make a dent in the huge problems that are faced by people on the street. “You’ve got to have hope,” she says with a small smile.