Hamilton planning committee votes to evict encampment residents 'within 12 to 72 hours'

Tent encampments in Hamilton parks and on public property will be cleared with three days of being reported to the city, if a motion that passed at planning committee Tuesday is certified by council next week.

Motion will move on to council after a 4-2 vote, despite dozens who spoke against it

An encampment of people experiencing homelessness.
Two people are shown moving a tent in a new encampment in Hamilton in this photo from 2020. The city's planning committee has voted in favour of "enhanced" enforcement of its parks bylaw. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Tent encampments in Hamilton parks and on public property will be cleared with three days of being reported to the city, if a motion that passed at planning committee Tuesday is certified by council next week.

Councillors voted 4-2 in favour of a motion brought forward by downtown councillor Jason Farr to conduct encampment evictions "within 12 to 72 hours after staff receive the first complaint regarding unauthorized camping in a City park or public place."

The motion also directs staff to carry out evictions seven days a week and to notify the Hamilton Police Service that a trespass notice has been issued.

It passed despite the objection of dozens of residents who signed up to speak out against it.

They said the city should focus its resources on finding permanent housing for encampment residents, not on evictions that simply move the problem from place to place.

"How is the city so happy to spend thousands on each and every eviction?" asked delegate Blake McCall, referring to the bylaw and police officers, as well as service vehicles, often present when evictions take place. "I find this motion cruel ... and not in line with the city I want to live in."

The motion says Hamilton is more lenient than other Ontario cities when it comes to encampment enforcement, and that the city's current enforcement process often results in more encampments with an "open-ended duration."

Director of licensing and by-law services, Monica Ciriello, said Tuesday the motion would bring "a little more clarity with regards to the time frames" of encampment evictions, but the steps taken by staff would be relatively unchanged.

Planning committee members Farr, Ferguson, Maria Pearson (Ward 10) and Brenda Johnson (Ward 11) supported the motion. Maureen Wilson (Ward 1) and John-Paul Danko (Ward 8) voted against it. The motion will go before council to be confirmed on March 30.

Councillor points to 'all sorts of crime' at encampments

Farr said set timelines are necessary because residents and businesses have wondered why encampments continued to grow, even after council voted to enforce the parks bylaw in August. 

"The enforcement process we have in place needs a tweak," he said, listing explosions, more than 140 fires, public sex, drug use, "crimes of all sorts," violence, and public urination as reasons to remove encampments.

"I take zero pleasure in bringing this unfortunately-needed amendment forward," he said.

Director of housing services, Edward John, said the city has permanently housed about 1,000 individuals during the pandemic. He added that there is capacity in both women's and men's shelters in the city, although not everyone who wants shelter is able to access spaces due to individual circumstances. 

"Currently we're aware of 25 unhoused individuals in encampments," he told councillors.

'They do not have other choices'

More than 40 people signed up to speak to the committee on the motion, prompting Coun. Ferguson to express concern for how long it would take to hear them all, and urging chair Johnson to rein in anyone who has spoken to council on this issue in the past, unless they were saying something new.

That suggestion was concerning to delegate Vic Wojciechowska, who noted committee meetings are one of the few opportunities for citizens to speak directly to councillors. 

Vic Wojciechowska is a member of the Hamilton Encampment Support Network. They spoke out against Councillor Jason Farr's motion at planning committee on Tuesday. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

"Seeing council balk at the thoughts of several hours of delegates speaking to a motion [is upsetting]," Wojciechowska said. "No one is above the democratic process… Many delegates struggle to make ends meet. We are not paid."

Several of the delegates asked councillors to acknowledge that most encampment residents are moving from one site to another, and are unable to access shelters for reasons including mental health challenges, family status, and fears of contracting COVID-19.

They encouraged the committee to consider letting people stay in tents until they are offered permanent housing.

Some delegates played videos shot at the sites of past encampments around the city, including Central Park, the Niagara Escarpment and Strachan Street, telling stories of residents watching their belongings thrown in dumpsters, or dreading being forced into the shelter system where they find it unsafe and difficult to sleep.

Sarah Imrisek told councillors about her ex-husband John, who struggled with addiction to OxyContin and ended up living on the streets. She recounted spending hours on the phone trying to find shelter for him, saying that when he did stay in shelters, he was robbed several times and often had conflicts with the staff.

"When these people end up in encampments, it is because they do not have other choices," she said.

"The only way this is going to change is not trying to sweep it under the rug. Make sure nobody is removed from a park until a real solution that they choose is in place."

Changes to encampment enforcement

The issue of encampments on public property has been a major discussion in Hamilton in recent years, as the visibility of groups of tents throughout the city increased during the pandemic.

In September 2020, the city reached an agreement with a group of advocates to allow encampments of fewer than five people that weren't on major streets. Council abruptly ended that encampment protocol agreement in a closed emergency meeting in August. 

In January, council approved plans to set up a rountable of experts and people with lived experience with the goal of finding gaps in service and ending encampments in Hamilton. The idea came from a motion put forward by Ward 3 Coun. Nrinder Nann, who called for a "human-rights based, health-focused" approach to housing.

Nann, who is not a member of the planning committee, told CBC Hamilton on Tuesday that Farr's motion "is truly misguided and will cause more harm than good."

She said keeping unhoused people on the move makes it harder for outreach services to stay in contact with them, the type of work that could lead to housing. 

"This motion will impair the work of City and our community partners are doing to build effective relationships and trust with residents facing varying degrees of crisis," she wrote in an email Tuesday, before the vote. "It will also balloon the enforcement costs rather than investing in solutions."

Nann said council members are aware that the shelter system can't keep up with demand, especially for women, non-binary people, and families. 

"We need more safe, dignified and supportive housing solutions instead of continuing to entrench a culture of fear and intimidation towards neighbours facing the housing crisis or facing a health crisis head-on."

With files from Samantha Craggs and Dan Taekema