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London, Ont. police, EMS enlist extra staff as officials brace for busy homecoming weekend

Thousands of students and partiers gather along Broughdale Avenue to celebrate 2019's unsanctioned Fake Homecoming (FOCO). Kelly Wang / Global News

Following COVID-19-subdued homecoming celebrations in 2020 and 2021, local officials say they’re preparing for what’s expected to be a rowdy, reveller-filled weekend around Western University and along the Richmond Row strip.

While Western has lined up a slew of offerings for students and returning alumni throughout the weekend, including the marquee Western Mustangs football game on Saturday, students are still expected to gather in off-campus neighbourhoods for unsanctioned parties as they have for years. Both police and paramedics say they’re bringing on additional staff as a result.

This year’s homecoming weekend, which runs Friday until Sunday, will see the first full-fledged homecoming celebrations in the city since before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

In 2020, the six-month-old pandemic resulted in students largely staying home, while in 2021, student gatherings were calmer than expected during the day but got rowdier up as the sun set, with bylaw officers responding to 24 noise complaints along Huron Street in the evening and overnight hours.

Last year’s homecoming was the first in years to be held in September, after Western reversed a 2016 decision to push back the event to October, a change made in a bid to clamp down on large parties along Broughdale, the student-filled, dead-end street located near campus.

Students, however, pushed back, organizing informal “fake homecoming” (FoCo) gatherings that drew thousands to the street. In 2019, roughly 25,000 people filled Broughdale for FoCo parties in a day of revelry that ended with 14 arrests, 32 people hospitalized and a policing bill of more than $300,000.

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With COVID-19 restrictions now dropped and roughly 38,000 students back on campus for the 2022-23 year, officials with Western, the city and emergency services are urging partygoers to keep things from getting out of hand.

In a statement, John Doerksen, Western’s vice-provost of students, said the university had been involved in planning undertaking by the city’s Unsanctioned Street Party Task Force, previously known as the Broughdale Task Force.

Formed in the wake of massive FoCo street parties on Broughdale in 2018, the task force involves leaders from the city, Western University, University Student Council, London police, the London Fire Department, Middlesex-London Paramedic Services and the health unit.

“We are encouraging students to be safe and take care of themselves, their friends and their community. The health and safety of our campus and community is a shared responsibility and we all need to do our part,” Doerksen said.

“We hope that students choose to join with the rest of the Western community to participate in some of our Homecoming events like the student pancake breakfast, football game and student fan festival.”

The Mustangs are set to take on the Waterloo Warriors at 1 p.m. Saturday at Western Alumni Stadium. The student fan festival, scheduled to run from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the stadium, will feature more than 20 free food trucks, hot air balloon rides, live music, games and contests, according to Western Alumni.

A full list of events scheduled for homecoming can be found on the Western Alumni website.

“The university will have teams in place across campus to provide for safety and security at Western during Homecoming weekend. This includes available resources for students at Care Hubs located on campus along with physical and mental health support through our Health & Wellness team,” Doerksen said.

Read more: Western University staff association is ‘challenging’ institution’s COVID-19 policy

As in previous years, London police say they will have a visible presence along Broughdale and in other student-heavy neighbourhoods throughout the day on Saturday, and extra officers are being brought in from Hamilton and York Region to ensure police resources are still available for the rest of the city.

Police say they have been co-ordinating for months with other agencies in the lead-up to this weekend, as part of the city’s task force.

“We just want to make sure that everybody is safe. We encourage people to have fun, but to do so responsibly,” said Const. Sandasha Bough.

“The enforcement will include laws in relation to open liquor, underage drinking, by-law offences, ensuring that streets remain accessible at all times, as well. There will be charges laid if they need to be. We’ll be firm but fair in our effort to enforce the applicable laws, but our top priority is safety.”

Saturday also marks the wind-down of Project LEARN, the annual initiative that runs for the first several weekends of the school year targeting rowdy student behaviour.

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Western University to require vaccinations and masking, says updated COVID-19 policy – Aug 23, 2022

Paramedics are also expected to be swamped with calls this weekend. Like police, MLPS, which covers London and Middlesex County, is also bringing on additional staff to bolster capacity.

Last year, MLPS members responded to a total of 75 calls for service in the Broughdale area between 8 a.m. on Sept. 25 and 3 a.m. on Sept. 26 — a vast majority after 5 p.m., according to agency figures.

Two people were taken to the hospital between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., while 30 were transported between 5 p.m. and 3 a.m., including six with serious injuries.

“Over the last few years Middlesex-London Paramedic Service has worked with allied emergency services and community partners to support the health and safety of the student community throughout homecoming festivities,” the agency said in a statement.

“As we strive to provide the best emergency medical care and support for the Middlesex-London community, we encourage all students celebrating homecoming this weekend to celebrate responsibly and to take care of each other.”

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Residents living near Broughdale and other student neighbourhoods have expressed worry ahead of the homecoming weekend, said Ward 6 Coun. Mariam Hamou.

“We’re hearing that they don’t want a repeat of last year,” she said.

In addition to a rowdy homecoming, Western’s O-Week was marred by the death of student Gabriel Neil near campus, and allegations of mass drugging and sexual assault that emerged on social media.

Police later reported that they had spoken with more than 600 people as part of an investigation into the allegations, but said no formal reports had been made with them.

“We’re trying to change the focus from being punitive into being more about safety, so hopefully that messaging comes through and that people are kinder to themselves and to the community around them,” Hamou said.

Hamou, who took over the Ward 6 council seat in May following the resignation of longtime councillor Phil Squire, says she will be “in the middle of it all,” on Saturday, “watching with a more in-charge eye, as opposed to more of an eye that looks at it from the point of view of the homeowner.”

“I’m going to be looking at it from the point of view as somebody in charge, and how do we mitigate any of the problems we would be facing come homecoming,” she said.

“The expectation that I have is that there is going to be a lot of people, it may get rowdy,” she continued, “but I’m hoping that with everything that we have in place, that it stays calm and that there are no fatalities, that people will remain safe and that it’s relatively incident free.”

— with files from Andrew Graham

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