Elected officials voice support for defund police demonstrators camping at city hall
'We will be here as long as we need to be,' said organizer Sarah Jama
Elected officials are lending support to demonstrators camping outside Hamilton City Hall to demand the police budget be cut in half so the funds can be invested in housing instead.
As the sun rose over the city hall Tuesday, the number of tents pitched in the forecourt had grown to more than a dozen after protesters said they were joined by homeless people seeking food and shelter overnight.
The demonstrators, who set up camp Monday afternoon, are demanding that 50 per cent of the Hamilton police budget be cut with those funds instead being reallocated to free housing.
They're also calling for a request from the service for a budget increase to be denied and that the amount police are asking for, along with any surplus in the service's budget, be used for housing.
"We are looking for a multi-government response to address this housing crisis so that people in our city do not have to die this winter," said organizer Sarah Jama.
In a statement Tuesday morning Ward 3 Coun. Nrinder Nann thanked the group for their actions, describing the conditions homeless people typically face in winter as "inhumane."
"Those gathered on the forecourt are simply saying, not one more winter ... not one more winter of these conditions and experiences. And I agree," she wrote. "We need safe, dignified, affordable and permanent housing solutions now."
Nann said the police budget surplus could be used to fund community outreach workers on evenings and during weekends.
Hamilton faces 'extreme housing crisis,' says councillor
The councillor also proposed an "immediate three-level government solution" for the city including fast-tracking discussions around using Metrolinx properties along the proposed LRT corridor as possible housing over the winter.
While Hamilton has received $10.8 million from the federal government for affordable housing, Nann said the 30 units it will cover are "wholly insufficient" to address the need in the city, adding Hamilton needs at least four times as much to house the roughly 100 people living in tents during the pandemic.
She also said more public health funds are needed for support services and suggested COVID-19 recovery funds should be freed up to meet those needs.
"Whether you agree with using police service funds and surpluses towards housing or not, there is no denying that we are facing an extreme housing crisis," said Nann.
"It is reasonable to question why we throw police at problems they are not able to solve. And, it is good governance to explore reinvestment of funds to tackle issues at their root."
The councillor said she and other council members will continue looking for ways to address the housing crisis, but said without support from other levels of government people without homes will face another difficult winter.
Matthew Green, who previously served as the councillor in Nann's ward and is now the MP for Hamilton Centre, visited the protesters Tuesday morning.
"These people have a deep caring for the suffering people are facing in our communities and it's clear every level of government has failed people … who have been made vulnerable by the housing crisis in Hamilton," he said.
Green said housing has long been an issue in Hamilton, adding there were opportunities to use surplus money from the police budget to support social services back when he was on council.
"The homeless population in this city has ballooned and we are at a precipice right now," he said.
"We had our first snowfall yesterday and I can't help but think about the people that have to face this winter knowing that they tentatively don't have a secure and dignified place to live."
During a press conference Tuesday morning, Jama called for elected officials to meet with the demonstrators to discuss their demands.
Mayor Fred Eisenberger previously said the city's approach to police funding reductions will be based on discussions from Hamilton's Community Safety and Well-Being Plan advisory committee, which includes a range of community organizations.
"While I do not support defunding of our police, I do believe reallocation of funds is a possibility," said Eisenberger in a statement Monday.
"These are complex and challenging conversations that need to take place – with all voices at the table."
Organizer ticketed by police
The demonstration is taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading city officials to issue a statement saying bylaw officers are asking the group to reduce its numbers to 25 or less to meet provincial orders.
The email also said that "it is unlawful to camp in front of City Hall at any time and that anyone who may attempt to camp outside City Hall will be asked to leave."
Jama was already ticketed by Hamilton police because the protest exceeded the numbers permitted for an outdoor gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Police say anywhere between 80 to 100 people showed up Monday.
If convicted, Jama faces a minimum fine of $10,000.
"I understand the concerns around COVID. We don't want to be here and neither do all of the houseless people that have joined us," she said Tuesday, adding the protesters are doing their best to maintain physical distancing and keep people safe.
"It's not enough to say 'it's the pandemic and everyone should stay indoors' when we know not everyone can stay indoors anyway. We're doing our part to push public officials to do the right thing."
Jama also said the protesters have no plans to leave.
"We will be here as long as we need to be."