Victoria & Weber Encampment remains, Regional Council turns to Courts for Direction

The June 30 eviction date for the 100 Victoria Street encampment rolled through without incident or eviction. This leaves residents and activists grateful but uncertain as the Region of Waterloo mulls its legal options.  

When bylaw officers staked an eviction notice on campgrounds in early June, outreach workers and activists rushed to help residents in the lead up to eviction day. They worried it would be a repeat of last year’s eviction debacle.   

In November, bylaw officers gave a Kitchener encampment little notice to leave the area and brought in police and heavy equipment to demolish their tents and belongings. This was followed by a rally on Nov. 28, 2021 calling for the sanctioning of tent cities until proper housing solutions are created. Regional Council convened, laying out a new and, in theory, more humane policy with outreach workers taking lead.  

Soon after, the Victoria Street encampment began to take root on a stretch of unused public land and grew to over 60 tents by the spring. Outreach workers and activists began visiting the site and supporting residents. Council warned that this would be a temporary arrangement and that they had until the fall to leave. That changed when the eviction notice was served.  

The region has offered shelter space to residents. However, local activists like Kamil Ahmed have noted that shelters were more of a band aid than a permanent solution. For example, shelters are only available from 7 p.m. to 9 a.m., leaving folks unsheltered during the day.  

“The shelter system is quite understaffed, under-supported, undernourished—especially our regional shelters,” Ahmed said. “There’s some ugly things that happen behind closed doors that the public does not realize about our shelter system sometimes.”  

Ahmed and others organized a rally on June 22, calling out the region for its inhumane treatment of the unhoused. Around 150 people marched around downtown Kitchener, calling for the region to adopt a human-rights based approach to housing. A regional council meeting was also being held at the same time, where Waterloo Region Community Legal Services (WRCLS) also urged council to seek alternative solutions.  

“I urge you to commit to upholding the human rights and human dignity of encampment tenants. Do not force evictions of homeless encampments without identifying an alternative place to live,” Kristen Thompson, a lawyer at the WRCLS, said.   

Many of camp residents had also expressed issues and difficulties dealing with the shelter system, making it a non-starter. The encampment isn’t ideal but was better than what was available at the moment.  

Camp resident Jen shared her experiences with Regional Council, saying the shelter system caused her a lot of neurological issues and anxiety. She actually found more support and connection through the camp than she did with the shelter.  

“I walked away from there with the clothes on my back and it was the best decision I ever made was deciding to go and live in a tent rather than a shelter,” she said.   

Staff reported that the arrangement had, apparently, become untenable. The report is unavailable at time of writing, but according to council, it was due to an influx of police visits, possible fire hazards, and complaints. It was deemed for their own safety that they would be evicted.  

“It helps people by keeping them safe. I get that the situation isn’t ideal, but it’s become extremely unsafe…There’s only so much we can do if they’re not willing to accept our helping hand,” Michael Harris, Regional Councillor for Kitchener-Conestoga, said.   

A new space operated by the Working Centre was opened to address some of those concerns, allowing people of all genders, couples and pets to stay together. However, many are still staying put at 100 Victoria St.  

Activists called on council to suspend the eviction, but that’s not within council’s powers, as Regional Councillor Elizabeth Clarke wrote in an email to the author describing the situation.   

“In this matter (as in almost all others), the role of Council was to create and approve the encampment policy, which was passed last October. The role of staff is to implement the Council-approved policy, and to keep Council informed,” she wrote. 

Although the eviction was not lifted, the residents did not vacate the property and the council is exploring legal options through the court system. Although the council can dictate policy and make decisions, they cannot control how staff follow through.  

That same meeting, Regional Councillor and Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic introduced a motion calling for a rights-based approach to housing and to develop an interim plan for the region’s unhoused. The motion passed unanimously, minus the commitment to a rights-based approach to housing. Instead, it will be investigated in order to understand what legal obligations council would be taking on, were they to commit to it. 

“It did just push the work down the road,” Ahmed said. “At the same time, it also did push the eviction down the road.”   

He and others continue to keep watch over the encampment, figuring out their next steps to protect residents. 

As the region seeks direction from the courts on how to proceed, it’s unknown how long it will take. The courts are still dealing with a pandemic backlog of cases.