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Is downtown Hamilton safe? 2:13

Decision-makers hoping to stop loitering downtown risk criminalizing the poor and marginal, say social advocates.

They say broader community solutions are needed, not a crackdown that excludes certain kinds of people from public spaces.

The city’s task force for cleanliness and security in the downtown is looking at a three-year pilot project that would dedicate a bylaw enforcement officer and police officer to the area around Gore Park, similar to a program in Barrie.

Right house Hamilton

The city is looking at a pilot program that would dedicate more police and bylaw resources to the downtown area. But it's important not to criminalize poverty, an advocate says. (Adam Carter/CBC)

But if people are loitering, it means there aren’t enough viable spaces for them to gather, said Renee Wetselaar, a social planner specializing in affordable housing with the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton.

“If we push them to the margins, it’s still not going to address the issue around why is it people have nowhere else to go,” she said.

'It’s hard to be prosocial when you don’t have any money in your pocket.'- Renee Wetselaar, Social Planning and Research Council

“They’re kicked off the roof of Jackson Square. They’re not allowed to smoke in Gore Park. There really is a larger community response needed, not to just target people with some bylaws.”

City staff and police will report to the task force on July 14 about how feasible it is to mirror Barrie’s program.

Barrie also has a controversial 2004 nuisance bylaw that forbids, among other things, swearing, spitting, loitering, busking and taking items from the garbage.

Hamilton already forbids some of these things, but they are dispersed through a number of bylaws, said Kathy Drewitt, executive director of the Downtown BIA. They just need better enforcement.

Wetselaar worries that these efforts exclude “the other side of the story” — that Hamilton has a lack of affordable housing, so people have nowhere to go.

She suggests a solution such as a food bank with a dining room attached, or more affordable housing so people can socialize at home.

Need housing where people can have their friends over

“We need places for people to be able to bring their friends together, and if they choose to smoke, they can smoke,” she said.

If the city further cracks down, she said, it risks “criminalizing people who are hungry and who are poor.”

Drewitt doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s not targeting anyone in particular,” she said.

Drewitt brought the program idea to the task force. The last time she was in Barrie, she noticed a sign telling people to enjoy the downtown but be respectful.

Downtown is safer, but there are still complaints

“It would be nice if we could remind people a little bit about what it’s like to enjoy a downtown that is clean and safe, where people aren’t spitting on sidewalks,” said Drewitt, who would like to see a “draft made-in-Hamilton solution.”

Downtown has improved in recent years, but there are still concerns, she said.

“We get a wide variety of complaints from people who are trying to operate businesses, and people are standing in doorways obstructing people.”

Wetselaar walks through downtown every day on her way to work, and she understands the complaints.

“I have to walk through the cigarette smoke too, but there aren’t any other public spaces for people who may be marginalized to gather,” she said. “It’s hard to be prosocial when you don’t have any money in your pocket.”

Problems 'not specific to Hamilton'

The downtown challenges “are not specific to Hamilton,” said Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction. He wants everyone included in the solution.

Some of the residents seen downtown are from residential care facilities with few day programs, so they have nowhere to go, he said.

Addressing the issue “doesn’t mean banning people from participating in community life, whether it’s downtown or anywhere else,” he said.

“Sure, there’s some incidents and that’s unfortunate. But on balance, I think most of the people who are downtown are there because they want to participate in community life.”

Hamilton Police Services figures show that downtown Hamilton is getting safer. In 2010, the service launched the ACTION team, which patrols downtown on foot, bicycle and horseback.

Crime is down

Since then, a report shows, violent crime cases went from 82 in 2009 to 52 in 2013. Robberies, assaults, break and enters and auto thefts are also down. Police have also launched the Social Navigator program, which connects people with mental health and addiction issues with community resources.

In Barrie, a team called HEAT (High-End Enforcement Action Team) patrols downtown and problem areas, similar to the ACTION team.

But it has a more dedicated team to deal with downtown issues called CORE (Community Oriented Response Team), said Sgt. Bill Grant. That team focuses on about 10 city blocks.

CORE has eight constables and HEAT has six constables and two sergeants, he said. One staff sergeant oversees both units.

The city has also assigned a specific bylaw officer to the downtown area, he said.