'This is my family:' City urged to allow tent encampments during COVID-19

Doctors who treat Hamilton's homeless population will renew their plea today for the city to stop tearing down tent encampments — at least for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some cities are allowing encampments during COVID-19, and Hamsmart says Hamilton should do the same

"This is my family right here," says Lizzie, right, with Mike, her brother Shaggy and Shaggy's two dogs, who Lizzie describes as "my nephews." (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Doctors who treat Hamilton's homeless population will renew their plea today for the city to stop tearing down tent encampments — at least for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Hamilton Social Medicine Response Team (Hamsmart) and Keeping Six will meet with the city for a regularly scheduled talk about issues impacting people living rough, says Jill Wiwcharuk, a doctor with Hamsmart.

The groups hope to discuss — again — why Hamilton should follow the lead of some cities and leave tent encampments alone for now. In San Francisco, for example, officials have sanctioned five "Safe Sleeping Sites" and provided showers and food, NPR reported this week.

Leaving tent encampments alone can actually be a COVID-19 prevention measure, Wiwcharuk said. Tearing down encampments just drives people farther underground, and people with health issues can disappear. 

In the case of San Francisco, allowing encampments is also a chance to provide people with food, water and hand-washing facilities.

Hamilton officials say their main focus is getting people into temporary and permanent housing. Wiwcharuk said she supports that too. 

"My ask is, in the meantime, don't clear out encampments."

Lizzie's tent at Jackie Washington Park last week, which has since been torn down, was neat and organized. "We're not dirty people," she said. "We just don't have anywhere to live." (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The city has torn down two encampments since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The first was at the former Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School downtown. The second was at Jackie Washington Park near Hamilton General Hospital. Wiwcharuk said six people were living there at the time, and the city cleared the area and razed some of the belongings.

One person living there last week, who went by the name Shaggy, said he couldn't go to a shelter without being separated from his dogs, which are like children to him. He was staying in the park with his sister Lizzie and his friend Mike, and his pets, who were well fed and staying in the tent with him. Shaggy said he and his friends had been ticketed thousands in trespassing fines.

'I've lost everything'

Lizzie, a former personal support worker whose cancer is in remission, said she didn't want to leave her brother. The pandemic is stressful enough, she said.

"I've lost everything," she said. "If it wasn't for my brother, I would have nothing."

With the dogs, Shaggy and Mike, "this is my family right here."

Wiwcharuk said the desire to not surrender pets is a big barrier to people accepting shelter. People who are homeless often distrust shelters and the system, so if they hand over their pets for fostering, they don't necessarily trust that they'll get them back.

City isn't budging

"These are folks that have very little at all in life," she said. "Many of them have very few supportive relationships and people in their lives who love them unconditionally. And sometimes an animal is what fulfills that role.

"I have seen people refuse to go into hospital and refuse to go into shelter. There is no question that has long been an issue."

For the time being, the city isn't budging on the encampment issue. 

Edward John, the city's director of housing, said in an email last week that federal and provincial money is paying for hotel rooms, and to help shelters accommodate physical distancing. There are also about 75 people at FirstOntario Centre, although none of these places allow pets. Pets can be accommodated in hotel rooms for an extra fee, but the city isn't paying that.

The city is also using Bennetto Community Centre to quarantine people who are homeless and have COVID-19. Two people have stayed there since March, but no one is there now.

People are working together

Grace Mater, director of children's services and neighbourhood development, said during the city's weekly COVID-19 town hall Wednesday that encampments aren't the best place for people. The city's entire focus is on finding people temporary or permanent housing.

The city isn't advocating for any new encampments, she said. But it also relies on groups like Hamsmart, Keeping Six, Good Shepherd and Mission Services for advice.

"We've been trying to take a very individualized approach" to finding people accommodation, she said.

Wiwcharuk said not everyone fits into the shelter system. "This is the toughest cohort to work with," she said.

But "moving people along still doesn't change the fact that they still need to stay warm."


Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca