Access to hot air vents at city hall blocked after incidents involving gun and '6-foot spear': City manager

Hamilton's city manager says it boarded up hot air vents behind city hall as incidents involving people warming up there escalated, including one where a "six-foot spear" was seized and another where police recovered a gun.

Janette Smith says fighting, threats of violence and racial slurs left staff feeling 'fear'

A staff member accesses a secure box at Hamilton City Hall. The back entrance is flanked by barriers built to block people from hot air vents. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Hamilton's city manager is defending the "difficult" decision to board up hot air vents behind city hall, saying incidents involving people warming up there had escalated, including one where a "six-foot spear" was seized and another where police recovered a gun.

Janette Smith told the general issues committee Wednesday that 34 incidents of illegal behaviour had been reported by security since the beginning of December, with 13 that involved violence and resulted in police being contacted.

"It involved incidents such as fighting, verbal threats of violence as well as verbal assaults and racial slurs to staff and security staff," she said. "Staff were reporting fear."

A spokesperson for Hamilton police said it had been contacted about at least 14 separate incidences during December, with 11 that involved "some form of reported violence" and three about unlawful behaviour such as trespassing.

Police said the service was not immediately able to respond to Smith's mention of weapons as it would require scanning each individual report.

The city initially used plywood to block access to the exhaust system blasting heated air into the cold, building a structure around its rear entrance about two weeks ago. The move was met with public outcry, particularly from those who work with vulnerable populations and said it dehumanized those without shelter.

Dr. Tim O'Shea, who said some of his patients were among those staying outside of city hall, said he found the barrier "discouraging and disappointing," comparing it to a person boarding up a hole in their home so "critters" couldn't get in.

"It's almost treating people like they're not human beings," he told CBC.

City says it's about safety

Smith told councillors that it wasn't an "easy decision," but came after the rate and nature of confrontations began to ramp up in December.

City outreach staff have been visiting those staying outside city hall twice a day every day since October to let them know about their support options, she said.

Fifteen people were able to access shelter during that time, and city staff have also been helping run Bennetto Recreation Centre as a place to keep warm during cold alerts, Smith added.

"It's a difficult situation because we appreciate the situation we're in and for those that are living rough," she said.

"But from an occupational health and safety perspective as an employer, we're also balancing our responsibility of ensuring that the staff at the building are safe."

Roughly 200 visitors to city hall per day

The city manager provided information as a response to comments from Ward 1 Coun. Maureen Wilson, who said her constituents had questions about why the structure went up, especially during the "dead of winter."

Wilson also asked: If the vents were magnets for people trying to warm up, what steps were taken to direct people to a different entrance or exit?

Rom D'Angelo, director of facilities for the city, responded that the back door is a designated fire exit for city hall and the location of equipment for fire trucks to hook up to.

He said it's his responsibility under the fire code to keep the entrance clear. 

The structure allows the hot air to escape near the top. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

When Wilson asked whether the fire chief or department was consulted on the decision, D'Angelo said no, though housing outreach workers, bylaw, security and police were.

He also pointed to some vandalism and graffiti that had been scrawled in permanent marker on the walls.

D'Angelo said staff swipe card data and login sheets shows an average of 98 staff and 87 members of the public were accessing city hall each day throughout December.

Ward 5 Coun. Russ Powers said he was among those who visited city hall and found the back door blocked by people. 

When he asked to be allowed to pass by he was responded to in a "less-than-polite manner and an increasingly threatening manner" and ended up using another door, he told councillors.

'Optics aren't great,' says councillor

Coun. Jason Farr, who represents Ward 2, said the situation was "unnerving" for staff. He read an email he said was from a staff member thanking the city for putting up the barricade.

"The optics aren't great, particularly in a deep freeze," Farr said, before adding people staying outside city hall were offered a different place to keep warm.

Mayor Fred Eisenberger said the city is "moving heaven and earth" to get people housed, but "clearly some of them don't care for those options."

O'Shea previously told CBC the people he knew who were outside city hall were those with pets or couples who were not able to access shelter.

Being willing to stay out in the freezing cold underlines how important it is for them to stay together, he pointed out.

The plywood that first went up was replaced with a more fire-resistant substance last Friday after it was revealed the structure was built using the wrong material and without a building permit, something a city spokesperson said was "completely regrettable."

The city estimated the construction had costs to around $20,000, with another $3,000 for an engineer to review the structure and evaluate air flow to see if where it's blasting out is the best location.

Ward 12's Lloyd Ferguson brushed off criticism of the city erecting a structure without a permit, saying that can sometimes happen in an emergency.

"I offer no criticism at all to them for proceeding and getting the job done and then sorting out the paperwork afterwards."

The update on the barrier ended with Eisenberger moving a motion to commend facility staff and the city manager for their work. It carried unanimously.


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