Hamilton council votes to return to pre-pandemic rules barring encampments in parks, city property

Hamilton city council has voted to return to its pre-pandemic approach to enforcement at encampments, doing away with a protocol that allowed people to stay in public areas for up to 14 days.

Groups that brought injunction last year now considering next steps, including possible legal action

Tents line Ferguson Avenue North near Barton Street in Hamilton in July 2020. Hamilton city council plans to return to a policy it followed before COVID-19 that prevented anyone from camping in parks and other city properties. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Hamilton city council has voted to return to its pre-pandemic approach to enforcement at encampments, doing away with a protocol that allowed people to stay in public areas for up to 14 days.

Instead, the city is returning to the policy it followed before COVID-19, preventing anyone from camping in parks and other city properties, according to a media release, which described the pandemic protocol as "ineffective."

The decision came after an emergency meeting Monday that saw councillors spend roughly an hour in closed session. Ten councillors voted in favour, while John-Paul Danko and Maureen Wilson voted against the change.

Regular enforcement will return following a "three-week grace period" after council ratification, reads a motion brought by Coun. Jason Farr and seconded by Coun. Sam Merulla.

Coun. Nrinder Nann said she was unable to attend the emergency council meeting, but would have voted against repealing the protocol.

"The protocol application may not have been perfect, but it enabled life saving outreach & supports for many," she tweeted.

The Hamilton Encampment Support Network (HESN), a volunteer group that sprang up earlier this year to provide help to people living rough, has responded by writing an open letter calling for encampment evictions to end.

The group describes council's decision as "sudden," noting the discussion happened behind closed doors, and without a an opportunity for the public or people living in encampments to participate.

HESN says many people on Ontario Works or the the Ontario Disability Support Program can't afford to live in the city.

The letter also pointed to the fact the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing and the opioid crisis continues to rage.

"Policing houselessness will never eradicate the public health risks at hand," it reads. "The only solution is housing."

The city says it will continue to work with people sleeping rough on an individual basis, connecting them with resources and support.

"The pandemic has underscored the increasing need for access to safe, humane, and affordable housing," stated Mayor Fred Eisenberger in a release. "Parks need to remain a safe place where all residents can enjoy and access outdoor spaces and amenities."

Protocol came after court injunction

The number of people sleeping rough in Hamilton has risen during the pandemic, according to the city.

A court injunction, brought by a group of doctors, lawyers and advocates in July 2020, temporarily blocked the city from removing people camping in public areas tearing down their tents.

The injunction was lifted in October, and the city says an "understanding" was reached between advocates and officials that resulted in the encampment protocol and its 14-day timeline, which the city said allowed for time to assess and search out housing needs for those in parks. 

The protocol limited encampments to five people and the 14-day countdown began as soon as one tent was spotted, even if others arrived days later. Removals and teardowns have continued throughout the past year. It is now unclear how quickly any removals or teardowns will happen after the three-week grace period is over.

Wade Poziomka, a human rights lawyer who previously represented the group that got the injunction, said he was disappointed by the city's recent decision given the progress he felt was made last summer.

"The primary concern for everybody should be what's the impact of this going to be on people who are in encampments who have nowhere else to go," he said.

"I would think that if the city is going to make this decision unilaterally … then they better have a plan in place that's going to make sure people are protected and not cause further trauma."

Litigation a 'last resort,' says lawyer

Gord Smyth, who has been staying in Hamilton's Central Park for several weeks, said he had been displaced by the protocol at least three times.

The 54-year-old previously told CBC Hamilton he and the other people who set up camp felt like they were living on borrowed time.

"Every day you wake up and you wonder are you going to be here or are you going to leave."

Gord Smyth's tent is packed with his belongings. He's been staying in Hamilton's Central Park for weeks, and says he's not willing to move again. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Poziomka said the organizations that brought the injunction last year will discuss possible legal avenues in the coming days, but he hopes someone from the city will reach out so they can discuss the change and ensure further harm isn't caused.

"In my view, litigation is always a last resort. It wastes taxpayer dollars, it wastes people's time and it doesn't resolve in quick resolutions that benefit people who need it," he said.

"Partnerships and collaboration … is always a preferred option. Unfortunately I don't think we're seeing that from the City of Hamilton."