Defund police demonstrators leave city hall, announce encampment support network

Demonstrators who have been calling for police to be defunded so the money can be invested in free housing instead are leaving city hall after two weeks of protests — but say they'll be back.

'We’re providing alternatives and solutions,' says protest organizer Sahra Soudi

Demonstrators calling for police to be defunded covered the front doors of Hamilton City Hall in "eviction notices" outlining their demands. The group has been protesting for two weeks, but announced plans to leave the forecourt and create a support network for encampments on Monday. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Demonstrators who have been calling for police to be defunded, so the money can be invested in free housing instead, are leaving city hall after two weeks of protests — but say they'll be back.

The group announced Monday it's launching an encampment support network, which will provide supports for people living rough, act as observers when tents are taken down by officials and will follow up with homeless people.

Before they left, demonstrators and their supporters wallpapered the front doors of city hall in purple, pink, yellow and green "eviction notices" outlining their demands.

They also set up a tent in the middle of Main Street West, blocking traffic with a banner calling for "FREE HOUSING NOW."

The group will continue pushing for policy changes at all levels of government, said organizer Rowa Mohamed.

"The approach is going to be changing," she said, quickly adding that doesn't mean demonstrators will be staying away.

"We will be returning whenever it is relevant for us to return to remind city hall that we are still here and we are still building pressure."

The demonstrators have been a near-constant presence outside the building since Nov. 23 when they set up tents in the forecourt and said they would not leave until their demands were met.

The group is calling for the Hamilton police budget to be cut by 50 per cent.

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 budget, be invested instead in free housing.

The notices featured the group's demands, including that Hamilton police be defunded by 50 per cent, with that money being used to provide free housing. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Mohamed said the group's demands have not changed.

"We started that conversation here locally, but I don't think it stops here. We understand that funding and housing … is complex," she said.

"We also understand that funding goes to police on every single [government] level and we can reallocate that on every level to go back to free housing."

Mayor Fred Eisenberger previously said cutting the police budget by 50 per cent is "not a rational notion."

The city says it has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into affordable housing over the past six years and that there is currently room for any homeless person in Hamilton who needs a place to stay.

Tents torn down, protesters ticketed

The weeks-long demonstration saw some of the demonstrators ticketed for violating the province's COVID-19 rules and their tents torn down by bylaw officers on Nov. 30.

Members of the group also dropped off a coffin outside Eisenberger's house, complete with naloxone kits sitting on a bed of flowers. Police are investigating.

Eighteen of the demonstrators were arrested and fined $65 on Dec. 2 after refusing to leave city hall until the mayor agreed to meet with them publicly to address their concerns.

Eisenberger said he had offered to meet with two representatives of the group inside city hall, but the demonstrators said they wanted the meeting to happen outside, rather than in private.

That meeting still has not happened, but the group feels it accomplished what it set out to, said Mohamed.

"There wasn't a meeting with Fred. But Fred definitely heard us," she said.

"More importantly than Fred hearing us, I feel like other people in other levels of government have heard us and come down to speak to us."

The group blocked traffic with a sign calling for free housing and set up a tent in the middle of Main Street West on Dec. 7. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Sahra Soudi, another organizer of the demonstration, said the support the group saw from community members during the protest shows people care about homelessness and want to see action.

"We'll continue to fight," said Soudi, adding the demand for funding to go from police to housing marks a change from calls to simply defund.

"Now we're providing alternatives and solutions."