'Back to sleepless nights': Encampment resident fears for future as Hamilton resumes enforcement

Sitting inside a tent wrapped with sleeping bags for insulation against the cold, Gord Smyth can't help but feel he's right back where he started.

'The hearts and hopes of other people is what has kept us alive,' says Gord Smyth

Gord Smyth pets his dog, Daisy. The 54-year-old lives in an encampment in Hamilton's Central Park and said he's unsure of what will happen, with news the city will begin enforcing its bylaw again. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Sitting inside a tent wrapped with sleeping bags for insulation against the cold, Gord Smyth can't help but feel he's right back where he started.

The 54-year-old was one of five people who had lived in encampments and were named in an application to Superior Court seeking an injunction to stop the City of Hamilton from tearing them down.

On Tuesday Justice Andrew Goodman released his decision, ruling the city can enforce its bylaw against tents in public spaces.

That same afternoon, the city issued a media release saying it will resume enforcement.

The impact of the court decision was immediate, and "devastating," Smyth said.

"I'm back to sleepless nights," he explained.

"I sit here shaking. Every time I see a shadow come by the tarps it's, 'Ok, they're here. Time to go.'"

The court ruling states that four out of the five applicants are no longer in encampments.

Just Smyth remains in a tent, unsure of how long he can stay.

He's back where he started, alongside dozens of others still living in parks across the city, but there is one difference now — winter is coming.

The tent in Central Park where he and his girlfriend have camped for months is surrounded by tarps propped up with tent poles.

They're using a generator to recharge the power scooter he uses to get around and rely on their two dogs, a small furnace and BBQ to keep warm.

"It's freezing. You have to wear two, three pairs of clothes," said Smyth, noting it's only November and snow has yet to fall.

Legal clinic says people have 'nowhere' to go

The application for the injunction was brought on behalf of encampment residents by lawyers with the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic.

In a statement, they shared their disappointment in the ruling and urged the city to create more shelter space, especially for women and couples.

"The bottom line is that, despite the court's decision, there remains a segment of Hamilton's population, the most vulnerable, who have nowhere else to go," it reads in part.

The encampment is surrounded by tarps to keep out the wind and rain. At one point there were up to nine tents in Central Park. Now just Smyth, his girlfriend and their two dogs are staying there. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The city said staff are putting together a report on plans for winter and changes to the shelter system, which will be shared during a Dec. 7 meeting.

"The city enforcement approach will continue to take into consideration the safety and well-being of individuals experiencing homelessness, as well as the broader community needs, including access to green space for safe outdoor recreation," it said.

All 5 applicants offered shelter

Justice Goodman wrote in his decision all five of the applicants had either been offered shelter or supports, which led him to determine that they couldn't demonstrate evidence that they would suffer irreparable harm under the bylaw.

But Smyth said living in an encampment and with the fear he could lose belongings at any time has left its mark.

"Family, my close friends, will tell you I am not the same person. I will never be the same person before I was homeless," he said, adding he used to have a lot of love and respect for everyone.

Now, Smyth said, he has trouble trusting others, including bylaw and police officers, and even outreach and housing workers who are trying to help.

He bristled at the suggestion raised in court that he had refused housing, saying he had signed paperwork for an apartment but was later told the landlord had rescinded the offer.

Tarps and tent poles provide shelter at the encampment. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

All other housing and shelter options he's been offered were either more than he could afford or would mean being separated from his dog, Daisy, said Smyth.

The two have been together nearly 24/7 over the past three years, he said, and his pet looks out for him, barking to alert others if he has a seizure.

"We refuse to separate from the dogs," said Smyth. "That's our family. You don't split up families."

Surviving on the 'hearts and hopes' of others

As a "last-ditch effort" he said he's considering moving to the U.S. with his girlfriend, who has a place there where they could stay, but crossing the border as a homeless person could be complicated.

Smyth also has health concerns. He said he has diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and worries what would happen to him without the Canadian health supports he relies on.

"I'm even more vulnerable down there than I am on the streets."

For now the couple are piling on the blankets, hunkering down against the cold and looking to neighbours, nuns and other community members who have brought them food and supplies.

"Ironically it's not the city that's helping, it's not the province, it's not the country," Smyth said.

"The hearts and hopes of other people is what has kept us alive."


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