“How do I feel about being kicked out of here? Fuck buddy, you’re unbelievable. You’re driving me nuts already,” Barry said when he talked with LWC on Tuesday.
Barry (last name withheld), 57, was one of roughly a dozen unhoused Calgarians who were being moved from a large-scale encampment on the west side of Deerfoot Trail, just north of Glenmore Trail.
It was part of Operation Encampment, a joint effort that started this week, of the Calgary police, Calgary Bylaw, Conservation Officers, Alpha House Encampment Teams and PACT – Police and Crisis Team (with Alberta Health Services) nurses to address what they said were public safety risks along with a criminal element among residents in the location.
Acting Sgt. Rob Gray with the Calgary Police Service (CPS) said that action on this location had been in the works since April. The schedule for the dismantling of the location came together as resources fell into place, Gray said.
“We want to make sure we had all resources available, every opportunity for all of our unhoused population that we’re living in here to provide them with all the resources that they needed for this,” he told LWC.
The operation began Monday, Sgt. Gray said. Three large dumpsters of material were taken from the area on day one. Three more had already been taken out by early afternoon Tuesday.
“We haven’t even scratched the surface of everything else that’s inside,” Sgt. Gray said.
As Gray described the area, he referred to the different dwellers by first name. There was a familiarity as they’d dealt with a number of the occupants this year already and in previous situations.
They’d collected a vast mix of goods: commercial solar panels, common household items, bags of copper wire, windowpanes, clothing, books, and more.
Gray said entire wood structures had been built in the area, others were large, tented structures. They had woodstoves, bunk beds and there’s evidence of a rudimentary water or plumbing system with PVC pipe and the nearby Bow River.
Motivation for the dismantling of the encampment
Gray said the encampment could take up to two weeks to remove, weather-dependent.
Back in April, Gray said stolen property was found when they’d responded to the area on a different matter. When they showed up at the site, he described it as a “huge village.”
They found a 30-foot trailer, stolen bikes, Gator-type vehicles, golf carts, a snowblower and more. Further, they’d found a host of combustibles including full gas cans and propane tanks.
“We’ve gotten complaints from the neighbouring businesses, people from the community,” Sgt. Gray said.
“We’ve had fires that have happened here, (they) literally shut down Deerfoot here, with all the smoke that’s gone through. We’ve got the safety aspect for pedestrians, people traveling so it became a huge risk.”
According to Calgary 311 data, this year there have been 25 encampment-specific calls in that area. In nearby Highfield, total 311 calls to date are 487 in 2023. Total encampment-related calls thus far in 2023 are 4,193, the city said.
Since April, the different groups behind the dismantling have been meeting each week to discuss how it would all come together. The Calgary police and their agency partners had a similar experience with an encampment outside the Calgary Drop-In Centre in February 2022.
While Sgt. Gray said this specific village had been there for at least a year, aerial imagery on the City of Calgary site shows evidence of habitation in this specific area for at least 20 years, perhaps longer.
Barry said he’s been there for 12 years.
“Without any problems,” he said.
“But then other people come, they steal, it don’t look good. I don’t know, whatever problem there is with these bylaws and shit like that, things gotta be changed. I fucking lost my legs because of this shit.”
Barry is aware of the criminal element. He said everyone out here is a thief to one degree or another. Most of the time it’s copper wire.
“What do you do when you’re out here? You can't get a job because you’ve got a drug problem or a drinking problem, so you steal to feed yourself. You get called a thief because you’re in a garbage can?” Barry said.
“That’s what people do. They don’t do it because they want to do it or enjoy it.”
‘It takes a lifetime’
Barry has had both legs amputated at the knee. He said lost them to frostbite after he was moved in a past bylaw sweep, though he didn’t say when. He said he got moved in the middle of a winter storm and took refuge in a Tim Hortons. He was kicked out into the cold around 3 a.m. and that’s when Barry said he got frostbite on the one leg.
A year later, he said he lost the other.
LWC asked how he ended up here 12 years ago.
“I don’t know. It didn’t happen overnight. This kind of thing doesn’t happen to anyone overnight,” Barry said, busy getting his wheelchair fixed up and things packed to move.
“It takes a lifetime.”
Barry left home at 13. He said at the time he thought he had things figured out. His father wasn’t in Barry’s life because he was often away working. Barry had no one to tell him what he needed to hear as a young man growing up. That’s where things began, he said.
He doesn’t see himself too much different than any other Calgarian – even sleeping rough. He and the others deal with relationship issues, shelter issues, food issues – and in some cases work issues.
“We have the same problems as anybody else,” he said.
“They (other Calgarians) don’t have the same problems as we have.”
Sgt. Gray said an important part of the plan is to ensure that each person being removed from their home has access to social support.
“We do speak to each one of them and try to develop a plan for them,” he said.
Two of the Calgarians impacted by the encampment cleanup have managed to get into housing, Gray said. Another woman was transported by Alpha House to get checked out at the hospital.
“Some of them have been unhoused for quite a bit of time, and some of them honestly, they do not want to go back into society,” Sgt. Gray said.
Social support files for most of these individuals have been set up, or they had been in place prior to this sweep, LWC was told.
Encampment teams deployed
The City of Calgary said they have a special team of Community Peace Officers (the Partner Agency Liaison team) who help address encampments and related concerns across the city.
“The Encampment Team checks in and build rapport with occupants, to connect them with needed resources and eventually issue a vacate notice,” the City said in an emailed statement to LWC.
“The process can take up to 30 days. In certain situations, if the occupants of the camps are close to receiving resources, we will leave them in situ so we don’t lose track of where they are and begin the process again at a later stage.”
The City said that they believe building rapport with the unhoused they are more successful in helping them accept offers of service. They are also trying to remove barriers to entering shelter, such as storing personal items and caring for animals.
“However, we recognize the reasons people sleep rough are complex and, in many cases, those in encampments choose to pack up and move on to another location,” the City said.
Sgt. Gray said they’re trying to ensure the offer of support is there.
“Nobody wants to wake up cold in the morning. We want to have a roof over our head, we want food on the table,” he said.
“That's what we want to try to give back to them.”
Barry, however, just wants to be left alone. He said no one’s falling through the cracks.
“You’re either pushed or you walk through them yourself,” he said.
“A lot of us just don’t want to be fucking bothered. We’re OK. We’re fine. It’s just not always a miserable, 'oh fucking sad, poor him' kind of thing.”
As for where Barry's headed now?
"I'll go across the street to the tracks," he said.
"And when they (bylaw) go over there and bug me, I'll come back here."