A couple of months ago, an open fire burned in the triangle of land where Main Street and Highway 403 meet.

It was the site of an encampment of people who didn't have a place to sleep indoors – a "tent city."

It attracted media attention when a suitcase of mysterious wrestling photos was found there by the city workers and police who went in after the fire to clean up the land and disband the camp.

'Guys, let me get you help.' - Const. Pete Wiesner

It was at least the second such encampment the city has broken up this year. At the same time, quality, affordable housing gets more difficult to find.

The night of the fire, someone had obtained a large wire coil, and the plan was made to burn off the plastic insulation to get at the wire underneath for scrap metal, police said.

The fire erupted, causing some passersby to think a car had driven off the road and blown up.

Police showed up, and firefighters and other emergency responders. They found people living at the site and others who were there visiting.

The fire drew attention to what police and city staff saw as a multi-layered problem: Issues of people living on city land, possible criminal behaviour, unsafe conditions.

'Nobody should be living like this'

When the smoke had cleared, police brought in their officer who helps people find housing and social services, known as the Social Navigator. 

The program, a partnership between police and paramedics, is aimed at providing an option outside of the judicial or medical system for frequent users of those public services.

Hamilton Bag

Hamilton police Const. Pete Wiesner is the service's Social Navigator. (Terry Morgan)

Const. Pete Wiesner said he went to the site and informed the people living there – four of them, he said – that in two weeks, the city would be cleaning it up.

"Guys, let me get you help," he said he told them. "The last thing we want to see is anything tragic happen. Nobody should be living like this."

There are myriad reasons why someone might be sleeping outside, said Shawn McKeigan, director of men's services at Mission Services, a local shelter.

"Whether it's a camp or they're in a precarious situation, people have reasons for being where they are," he said. "As strange as it might sound, people want to have some autonomy over their lives."

Tent cities 'not as common as people might think'

As housing costs rise in Hamilton, some people with unstable housing situations sometimes turn to living in tents outside. Coun. Matthew Green attributed it to the city's "housing crisis" when the city was breaking up an encampment on a brownfield lot near Hamilton's waterfront earlier this year. 

"We have situations like that along the escarpment, along the railroad tracks, around industrial and abandoned addresses," he said. 

At the waterfront site, a handful of people were living there, but the city stepped in to move them out because it was beginning an environmental study to get the land ready for condo development. ​

Nonprofits like Mission Services typically hear about the tent cities third-hand, when the city's street outreach workers or the police's Social Navigator is trying to find a placement for someone who was sleeping "rough", or outdoors, McKeigan said.

"If it's discovered that one exists, naturally, we want to provide support for the folks who are there," he said.

"We're set up to sort of respond to those."

'We don't go to 'clear' tent cities'

Two weeks after the fire, the city's public works department was back to clean up the site. They brought in two garbage trucks, saving anything that looked remotely valuable, Wiesner said. They threw away an old couch, dirty mattresses. They returned 14 shopping carts to nearby Fortino's.

And they found the wrestling photos in an old, heavy briefcase. They determined the photos had been stolen.

Hamilton Bag

Police found a bag full of notable wrestling photos on site at a tent city near Main Street and Highway 403. (Terry Morgan)

But first, Wiesner worked with the four tent city residents to find places for them to go. One he got in at Mission Services; another went to the Y. A third went to his sister's house. The last one went to another shelter.

Wiesner said it can be difficult to change the mindset that police are only there to arrest and ticket.

"We don't go to 'clear' tent cities," he said. "We go to navigate people to places to live. This isn't about displacing people because we don't want them to be there."

Wiesner said his job is getting harder.

In Hamilton, there used to be cheap housing to be found, he said. But now, redevelopment has risen rents and converted places that used to house multiple households back into single-family homes.

Hamilton needs more affordable housing, he said. It's a problem he said he wouldn't have been able to articulate in the same way five years ago, before his duties brought him in daily contact with people living unstably.

'Anything in my power to help someone find shelter'

Wiesner said he's aware of the tension in his role being with the Hamilton police. "Do we still have a job to enforce the law?" he said. "Yes."

But in this role, he keeps in touch with dozens of people who he has helped find a place to live, or get connected with Ontario Works assistance payments, or helped find a winter coat for.

George and Mary's

Suitable, affordable housing in Hamilton is getting harder to find. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Nobody should be living outdoors, he said.

"If I can do anything in my power to help someone find shelter, I will do that."

McKeigan said not all people sleeping outside have active drug use problems, or mental health challenges. Some have outdated perceptions of what sleeping in a shelter is like. Others don't want to share space, or follow rules or routines.

Remaining open to those differences is the challenge in providing human services, he said.

"Individuals that are sleeping rough today, their situation may be entirely different from individuals that are found to sleeping rough a month from now," he said.

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca