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“It feels like they have more rights than us:” Neighbours vow to launch class action lawsuit if encampment isn’t moved

About 60 residents protested outside city hall Friday, demanding more must be done to protect their neighbourhood and their children from the homeless who are camping in Rainbow Park.

Some threatened a class action lawsuit against the City of Sarnia based on what they called a violation of their human rights to enjoy security and safety in their own neighbourhood. Some said they are already speaking with lawyers.

Protesters gather on Queen Street. Glenn Ogilvie photo

Most of the protesters live within blocks of the park where emergency personnel are called regularly to deal with drug overdoses, violence, theft and fire. 

Friday morning, just hours before the protest, firefighters responded to their 34th call there since March. They extinguished a fire that involved no injuries but burned four tents and a large tree.

Open burning, public drug use, nudity and erratic behaviour are common since about 50 people moved into the park, said protest organizer Breanna Bentley.

“If I want to take my kids to the store, I have to check outside first and make sure no one is overdosing on the street,” said Bentley who has lived about one block from Rainbow Park for six years.

Breanna Bentley. Glenn Ogilvie photo

“We used to go to the park three or four times a week,” she said. “It was like our backyard and we had park dates there to meet other kids and their families.”

Now Bentley and her two children never go to Rainbow Park even though the city put in security during the day and fenced off the playground from the campers.

She and a few other moms organized the protest to make a point to city council, Bentley said.

“We are standing up for our neighbourhood and we’re standing up for the whole community because what’s happening here can happen in any city park.”

Rachel Carruthers walks through Rainbow Park with her children to City Hall. Glenn Ogilvie photo

She walked with her kids and about 30 supporters from the corner of Queen and Divine streets and travelled through Rainbow Park carrying placards reading “Children Have Rights” and “Make Our Park Safe Again.”

They marched down Christina Street where they were supported by honking motorists, and stopped at city hall where another 30 protesters joined in.

Residents walk to City Hall from south Sarnia protesting a homeless encampment Rainbow Park. Glenn Ogilvie photo

“Putting up that fencing is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Keith Morningstar who cycled in from Corunna to support the protesters.

“The city has got to put (the encampment) somewhere else because the more the people in Rainbow Park get, the more they want.

“It’s only going to get worse if it doesn’t get stopped now.”

Morningstar said he wants them moved but has sympathy for the homeless who battle addiction and mental illness. He said the provincial government needs to step up to help municipalities with encampments.

A lack of provincial and federal dollars to address homelessness was frequently mentioned by the protesters and the city councillors who spoke to them at city hall. Bentley said all of council was invited and three were there.

Councillor Brian White talks with protesters. Glenn Ogilvie photo

“I feel for you, I really do,” said Coun. Brian White. “None of us chose Rainbow Park.”

White said the lack of affordable housing, mental health and addiction supports, loss of community safety and the accessibility of cheap and dangerous drugs have created “the biggest social crisis I’ve witnessed in my life.”

He said most of those issues are provincial responsibilities and that he has spoken to Sarnia-Lambton MPP Bob Bailey about them numerous times.

“This protest should absolutely be in front of Bob Bailey’s office,” White said. 

But protester John Stevens said he disagreed and that the city should have moved the campers from the park months ago.

John Stevens. Glenn Ogilvie photo

“You’ve lost my vote, Brian,” Stevens said. “Parks are important and our housing values are important.” He’s lived in the neighbourhood for 50 years and said he wants the encampment moved somewhere like Sarnia Airport where it’s not close to playgrounds, residents or nursing homes.

Both White and Coun. Chrissy McRoberts assured the crowd that “discussions” are ongoing at both the city and county level to find a place to relocate the encampment.

A lack of jail space is also contributing to the problem, McRoberts said. 

“We need provincial and federal money to pay for what we need to help the people living in the park,” she said.

Coun. Chrissy McRoberts. Glenn Ogilvie photo

One protester suggested moving the encampment to the land surrounding the county-owned Lambton Health Unit at the corner of Exmouth and Front streets.

“That’s one possibility,” McRoberts said.

While the protest was generally respectful, some became passionate about conditions at the park.

Michelle Davis, whose grandchildren live near the park, confronted Coun. Adam Kilner. “You aren’t supporting all these children that don’t have another park in their neighbourhood,” she said. “Why are 50 or more people allowed to do this to our children.

Michelle Davis. Glenn Ogilvie photo

“You should stop that.”

Sharon Docherty confronted Coun. White, demanding to know why she and others were not given permission to speak at recent council meetings about Rainbow Park. They were told the issue had been discussed previously and council passed a bylaw disallowing speakers if they didn’t have anything new to add.

“I pay taxes. I want to speak about it and that’s our podium in there,” Docherty said. “It’s absolutely disgusting.”

Coun. Adam Kilner. Glenn Ogilvie photo

“I wish there were easy answers,” said Kilner. “I’m here because I care about this city and I care that there are people living in the park.”

Kilner said much more is needed than the current services and security measures at the encampment but the province needs to be involved.

As she marched toward city hall, Queen Street resident Renee Corry teared up when she talked about the state of her neighbourhood.

Renee Corry, right. Glenn Ogilvie photo

“I have lived in the south end my whole life. We don’t want to leave and give this neighbourhood to the encampment.

“Right now, it feels like they have more rights than us,” she said.


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