Police in two Canadian cities have been caught on camera denying unhoused people sources of shelter and heat during freezing weather last weekend.
In Edmonton, Alberta, a video shared by Bear Clan Patrol—an Indigenous community group working to feed unhoused people during the harsh winter season—shows local police officers making people leave the Central LRT station on Sunday for not wearing masks while eating food distributed by the patrol.
In Vancouver, B.C., a police officer tweeted he got to “play firefighter” after extinguishing what he called a “bonfire on the sidewalk” in the city’s Downtown Eastside on Saturday. Witnesses say the blaze was actually a small fire created by an unsheltered person to cook and help him and others warm up.
Melany Beatty, one of the seven volunteers with Bear Clan at the Edmonton LRT station, told VICE World News Edmonton police officers showed up about 10 minutes after they did and accused the group of encouraging unsheltered people at the station to take off their masks—an act necessary to eat.
Beatty said after a heated conversation with her, one of the officers went up to a young man who was sitting about 30 feet away from them.
“The officer went right over to him, bent down into his face, and told him he had to get out of there, (and that) he couldn’t stay there,” said Beatty.
“The young man asked if he could at least pack up his stuff. And the officer said, ‘Yeah, you can, but put a mask on, you're getting COVID everywhere.’”
She said the officer also took a person’s food and threw it in the garbage, before ordering everyone to leave the station and go out into the cold on a -21 C day that felt like -33 C with the wind chill.
“It’s not an ideal environment by any means...There's nowhere to sit down. There's no washrooms,” said Beatty.
“So (unhoused) people are just trying to survive. And it seems, from my point of view, that Edmonton police is doing everything they can to see that that does not happen.”
Edmonton police issued a statement on Twitter saying police “should have done a better job at communicating our role in helping connect citizens” to support services. EPS officers also met with members of Bear Clan Patrol and Water Warriors YEG on Tuesday.
While police apologized to them in private, Beatty said they did not commit to issuing a public apology or heed a request to not kick people out of LRTs for the rest of the winter season.
“From my point of view, the end of the meeting was a complete letdown,” said Beatty.
Edmonton police tweeted an additional statement Wednesday, suggesting they should have acted differently.
While temperatures are less frigid in Vancouver, its unsheltered populations were still unprepared for below freezing temperatures and a bout of snowfall that blanketed the city over the weekend.
On Saturday morning, Vancouver police officer Cst. Lee Marten took to Twitter to share his acts as a “firefighter” who put out a “bonfire” in the Downtown Eastside, complete with a photo.
That tweet was deleted after several people pointed out the fire was far smaller and was being used to cook bacon by a member of the unsheltered community—but not before Marten defended his stance in several subsequent tweets.
Sarah Blyth, an executive of the Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver, witnessed the incident.
“It was a little fire that was made specifically to cook bacon, and a couple (of) people were warming up by it,” she said.
Blyth says she started recording a video when police showed up looking irritated and she heard them swearing. Next thing she knew, an officer had taken out a fire extinguisher and hosed down the fire, along with the bacon that had been taken off the heat.
In a statement, Vancouver police said officers came across the fire while on patrol and decided to extinguish it.
“At the time, the fire was deemed unsafe as it posed as a public safety risk to have a fire on a busy sidewalk. There was no indication that the fire was being used to cook food,” the statement said.
More than 80 people die each year in Canada due to overexposure to the cold, according to Environment Canada, and many more suffer injuries from hypothermia and frostbite.
On Wednesday morning, a man was found dead inside a makeshift wooden structure at an encampment near downtown Toronto after the structure caught on fire while he was inside.
Joseph Hermer, an associate professor of Sociology at University of Toronto Scarborough, has an extensive background in researching policing of homelessness. He said comments like Marten’s show a lack of understanding and erode public trust in police.
Hermer said the joking tone of the post “shows a certain contempt for homeless people and for that individual.”
According to Hermer, there is a pattern of police frequently ignoring the advice of frontline workers— outreach workers, peer mentors, and shelter staff—when responding to incidents involving people who are homeless.
“Police have to understand that their ability to address or deal with these situations is limited,” he said.
“They should reach out for help, and they should be able to communicate with homeless people themselves, and be able to work with outreach workers.”
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