Following months of occupation by a cluster of Chatham-Kent homeless people under the Third Street Bridge, they were suddenly gone last week.
The makeshift shelter disappeared shortly thereafter.
The shelter, comprised of tarps, palettes and even old road signs, had stood since the middle of winter, while the homeless occupation under the bridge began earlier than that. The squatters also had fires under the bridge. There are places where the once-white concrete is clearly scorched by flames.
Mayor Darrin Canniff confirmed the shelter was pulled apart and hauled away on May 9.
“It was a joint venture between a lot of groups. They worked with the individuals living there and got them housed,” he said. “It wasn’t an ejection. But it was a safety issue.”
Polly Smith, director of employment and social services for the municipality, said the timing of the unsightly shelter’s removal and the weekend visit by Prince Michael of Kent was purely coincidental.
“Sometimes things just work out,” Smith said. “Our priority is that people’s rights are protected and they are safely housed.”
Smith said the makeshift shelter was uninhabited when the clean-up team came May 9 to remove the shelter.
“There was nobody staying there. We were able to clean up what was left behind,” she said.
Smith confirmed the moves were voluntary, as the people who had opted to live under the bridge were given opportunities to relocate. She added such efforts can take time.
“Anyone who is living in an encampment and on public land is given an opportunity to live elsewhere,” she said. “The choices out there are not always the choices they want. If we’re able to offer a choice that works for the individuals, it’s a win-win situation.”
Renee Geniole, operations co-ordinator with R.O.C.K. Missions, which provides street-level support to the municipality’s most vulnerable citizens, said the shelter had an ever-changing roster of inhabitants.
“There has been somebody living under there, but it’s been different people going in and out, basically since the bridge opened,” she said. The Third Street Bridge opened fully last August after a year and a half of extensive renovation work.
“The way the bridge was built, you could tuck yourself right up underneath there,” Greniole added. “There have been at least eight-to-ten different people using that place.”
That doesn’t count the people who would come by just to hang out.
“It also became a kind of safe place too. There are still a lot of people who couch surf or hop from place to place,” Greniole said. “It was used by a ton of people to go to just hang out or as a safe place just to crash for a couple of hours.”
Greniole credited Smith and her staff at employment and social services for doing a great job working with the people living under the bridge to get them alternative living arrangements.
“They worked hard to find them places to go and to work with them to find them a more long-term place to be,” she explained.