Sometime in May or June, police sweeps went into high gear in the DTES, likely as preparation for the Olympics. First we saw ‘no camping’ signs around the area. Then we heard the police would appear where people were sleeping outside, roust the ‘homeless’ sleepers, issue tickets and trash any possessions the sleepers couldn’t carry. Those who received tickets were well-aware that more than one could result in a warrant, an arrest, and jail.
Oppenheimer Park was one place hit hard by this “ticket & trash” campaign. But on July 16th park dwellers Tina Eastman (photo), Brian Humchitt (photo), Bandit and other park dwellers took a stand with their neighbours and the sweeps were stalled as a result.
The stand began when residents of the colourful row houses across the street (Jackson Ave. Co-op) asked Brian and Tina if they could camp out with them in support. The next morning the police had to face some upset neighbours and their children as well. Then a defiant press release was sent out to all civic, provincial and federal politicians in Canada, the media and all the head honchos at the City Hall and the VPD.
In the press release, Kathy Walker, a parent of 5 who slept out with park dwellers said: “The Park is a much quieter and safer place when people are camping here, it becomes their home, they look out for one another, and they clean up the park. These are our neighbours and we want the city to exempt Oppenheimer Park from this by-law that makes homelessness a crime.”
Brian and Tina were quoted in the release wondering where they were expected to go. They said: “We’re homeless in our own land. We are struggling to survive in our home which is our tent.” Later in a talking circle, park dwellers said they don’t see themselves as “homeless.” The park is their home and its better than a shelter, where couples are split up, conditions are inhumane and not accessible if located away from their community in areas where they get “stared at.” As for hotel rooms, they said getting one with the combination of the right price and good living conditions is next to impossible. They were pretty clear that affordable apartments were the answer. They also say they want their Indigenous rights to sleep in the park respected. They would like to see Oppenheimer designated as a “spiritually sacred space.”
With a break from the sweeps, at least as of July 29th when this article was written, park dwellers are settling in more. They have a couch, a large drum, a talking stick carved for discussions about the park, beautifully painted rocks (by Leah) lining the path by their space, the beginnings of a code of conduct for the park and are talking about setting up tee-pees as a traditional symbol of “home.”
In the meantime, neighbours remain on watch and will be called upon to show up when police arrive if the ticketing resumes. Park dwellers hope to keep the activism there small and manageable for now. PIVOT will help Tina and others challenge their tickets in court.