Borrowed time: Encampment residents say city's 14-day timeline for removal brings challenges

Hamilton's encampment response protocol says people camping in public spaces are limited to a maximum of 14 days in one location. It's a timeline a researcher says is unique to the city and creates challenges for people experiencing homelessness.

Support network says enforcement protocol makes helping encampments difficult

Gord Smyth and his dog Daisy rest outside of his tent in Hamilton's Central Park. The 54-year-old said he's living on borrowed time because of the 14-day limit for tents to stay in a single location under the city's encampment enforcement protocol. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Gord Smyth feels like he's living on borrowed time.

The 54-year-old said he and the other people who set up camp in Hamilton's Central Park just over two weeks ago were told they'd be kicked out on Friday, but days later they're still there.

Smyth isn't sure how much longer it will last.

"Every day you wake up and you wonder are you going to be here or are you going to leave," he said Wednesday, surrounded by a small clump of tents, green tarps and his belongings.

That's because of Hamilton's encampment response protocol, which says people camping in public spaces are limited to a maximum of 14 days in one location. It's a timeline a researcher says is unique to the city and creates challenges for people experiencing homelessness.

Kaitlin Schwan works with the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and co-wrote a national protocol for homeless encampments.

She said time limit isn't something she's seen done in other cities.

"It's not clear to me the criteria or the reasons they arrived at that 14-day period," the researcher said.

The city said it was unable to arrange an interview about the enforcement protocol, but did respond to questions sent by email.

It said the protocol was set up following mediation discussions from an injunction brought against the city last summer, temporarily barring it from dismantling dozens of tents downtown.

Kaitlin Schwan is a senior researcher with the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. She said she hasn't heard of any other city using a 14-day timeline around encampments. (Supplied by Kaitlin Schwan)

A spokesperson said 14 days was determined as an "appropriate timeline" for assessing the health and social needs of people living in encampments, following consultation with staff and the group of doctors, lawyers and advocates who got the injunction.

It does include an exception when there's no shelter space available. In that case, the city can decide not to follow the 14-day timeline for removal.

Generally though, once staff are notified about an encampment, they work with the people staying there over the two weeks, assessing and encouraging them to access shelter or other accommodations, according to the city.

Two staff members were visiting the Central Park encampment on Wednesday afternoon when CBC stopped by.

Smyth's tent is packed with his belongings. He said he's not willing to move again. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The city said in an email that between April 2020 and March 2021, 750 people were housed through city-funded case management and rapid-housing programs.

Cities across the country have adopted a range of methods around encampments during the pandemic, with some lifting anti-camping bylaws to allow encampments to stay and others relying on law enforcement for a "pretty heavy" approach that's seen people forcibly evicted on short notice, Schwan said.

That leaves Hamilton "kind of sitting in the middle," she said.

Schwan said encampments can offer community and make people feel safer than they do in shelters, particularly during the pandemic, but also because of violence and harassment.

Those are some of the reasons Smyth said he doesn't want to stay in a shelter, pointing to past issues with pests, health concerns, theft and having somewhere to stay during the day. He's also not willing to give up Daisy, his dog.

"She's the only thing I've got left."

'They're trying to push us out of the city'

Repeatedly requiring people living in tents and other shelters to move brings difficulties too, said Schwan.

"You have a very marginalized group already and to go through these kind of constant evictions and moving, it creates a lot of challenges to keep your property with you, including stuff like IDs, that become the basis for being able to access services."

The protocol at one point describes the 14 days as a "grace period," but Smyth said he hasn't experienced much grace.

"They're trying to push us out of the city."

That belief is shared by the Hamilton Encampment Support Network (HESN), a volunteer group set up earlier this year to provide support people living rough.

Network member Vic Wojciechowska said outreach organizations have told HESN the protocol is making it more difficult to help those at encampments.

"When people are being displaced from park to park and pushed to, really, the fringes of the city, it makes it harder for people to be connected with resources."

While observing a tear-down this week, HESN said it was told by a member of Hamilton's encampment task force that the 14-day countdown starts as soon as one tent is spotted and includes everyone camping there, even if others arrive days later.

The city confirmed by email that's the case.

Smyth said it's happened to him.

"We arrived three hours before eviction day and we got kicked out," he said. "They make up the rules as they go."

He said he's been moved along by the city's encampment protocol at least three times since losing his apartment in mid-June.

"I refuse to move again."


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