15% of encampment residents city interacted with have been housed, Hamilton data shows

Outreach workers had interacted with 477 people living at encampments in Hamilton between January 2020 and this July. Out of those, 73 of those people have been permanently housed, according to city data.

'You lose your life over and over again,' says encampment resident Gord Smyth

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

Hamilton has returned to its pre-pandemic enforcement at encampments, with tents being torn down in at least three parks in recent days.

Vic Wojciechowska, a member of the Hamilton Encampment Support Network (HESN), estimated that more than a dozen people have been evicted from city parks since last week, with some reportedly given only two hours of notice to pack up or be forcibly removed. 

On Wednesday, despite a day of rain, HESN said on Twitter they were maintaining a presence at J.C. Beemer Park off Victoria Avenue North, to stop the removal of a person staying there.

Removals are one part of the city's encampment response. Another includes its outreach efforts to house those residents. 

But how many people from encampments make it into housing with city support?

The most-recent statistics available show outreach workers interacted with 477 people living at encampments in Hamilton between January 2020 and July 2021.

Of those nearly 500 people, 15 per cent have been permanently housed, according to city data.

The remainder continue to cycle through the system or live rough in a city where advocates say shelters operate at or near capacity and there's a severe shortage of affordable housing.

While responding to questions around encampments in recent months, the city has been quick to supply statistics showing its efforts around housing. In media releases, it has said more than 700 households on the Access to Housing waitlist found lodging last year and more than 440 homeless individuals and families on a by-name priority list have found permanent housing.

Exactly how many of those people came from the encampments is not clear.

CBC sent multiple requests seeking clarity on that figure. 

73 people from encampments have been housed: city

What the city has confirmed is that between January 2020 and July of this year, the city's street outreach program interacted with more than 477 people at encampments.

Of those, only 73 people (roughly 15 per cent) were housed through housing support programs.

It's a "very low number," says Gord Smyth who has been camping in Central Park.

The 54-year-old said he's scared of losing everything, but he has nowhere else to go.

"Every time the city steps in and says 'What you're doing is wrong.' I'm sorry, what I'm doing is surviving, there's nothing wrong with that," he said. "It's a human instinct. It's a human right."

Smyth and his dog Daisy rest outside outside his tent on an August afternoon. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The city said the overwhelming majority of those 477 people it interacted with accessed shelter at some point, while 77 did not. 

Smyth is among those who have not entered the shelter system and said he's experienced theft and violence at area shelters. He's also not willing to part with Daisy, his pet dog.

"If they did good for 400-and-some-odd people, why did they stop?" he asked. "The simple answer is there's nothing, there's nothing available."

The waitlist for housing in Hamilton currently has more than 5,000 names, said Brother Richard MacPhee, CEO of the Good Shepherd. Organizations like the one he runs do most of the work when it comes to actually connecting people with accommodation, while the city's role focuses largely on outreach and managing the list.

Hamilton's shelters are "predominantly full," even with COVID-19 overflow areas added during the pandemic, said MacPhee.

While the wait is often years-long, the list also doesn't cover many of the "hidden homeless" who are couch surfing or staying in encampments, he added.

"We try to get them housed. Unfortunately, Hamilton has a very small amount of vacancy with regards to affordable rental housing."

Still, MacPhee said he believes the percentage of people at encampments that the city has managed to house is "pretty good," though his organization and others would like to do more.

"I think the folks that are living out there in tents are really hard people to engage," he said. "They have some major, complex issues such as addictions and mental health."

Medora Uppal, director of operations for YWCA Hamilton, said she believes the numbers the city has released citing those housed sound "realistic," but also pointed out they don't account for how many people were displaced over the same period.

She also noted that the housing waitlist is just that — a list for housing, not other supports that may be necessary.

"It really doesn't give us … a full picture of the need, the demand and the accessibility," Uppal explained.

Then there's the possibility of people being housed, only to lose their space and end up back on the street, something Smyth said he estimates will happen to 25 per cent of the 73 encampment residents the city connected with a place to stay.

Complaint-based system 'turns Hamiltonians against each other'

Hamilton councillors voted earlier this month to return to pre-pandemic enforcement at encampments, doing away with a measure that let some people camp for up to 14 days in one spot.

The six-step enforcement process, presented by city staff on Sept. 9, starts after a complaint is submitted to bylaw officers and ends with police being called in and city staff tearing down tents.

Starting with complaints turns those with housing against those without it, said Wojciechowska.

"Encampments are a public health crisis, not a community complaint issue," they said.

"We know there are not enough supports and there are not enough resources, so encampment residents should not be harassed, encampment evictions should not be happening until there's some sort of progress is made on the housing crisis."

Vic Wojciechowska is a member of the Hamilton Encampment Support Network. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Smyth said he and the other people who have formed a family of sorts in Central Park put up tarps around their huddle of tents to shield it from neighbours, in hopes it would mean fewer complaints.

They also make an effort to be friendly, waving at neighbours and speaking with them whenever they can, in order to maintain a good relationship, he said.

But they're afraid of what the city's current approach means for them.

"They will literally take all of your belongings and trash them," he said. "You lose your life over and over again."