Hamilton to examine homeless encampment issue, but seems no closer to allowing them

A group of Hamilton doctors is continuing to call for the city to allow tent encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic. But while the city will look at it again in the next two months, it shows no sign of budging.

A group of Hamilton doctors asks the city to stop tearing down encampments during the pandemic

Mike, Shaggy and Lizzie were staying at Jackie Washington Park before the city tore down the encampment. "This is my family right here," Lizzie said. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

A group of Hamilton doctors is continuing to call for the city to allow tent encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic. But while the city will look at it again in two months, it shows no sign of budging.

The city has torn down two encampments of people who are homeless — one at Jackie Washington Park, another at the former Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School — since the pandemic began. It's also cleaned up belongings outside the FirstOntario Centre in downtown Hamilton, where inside, it has set up a makeshift 50-bed shelter.

Still, encampments keep popping up around the city. Some have two or three people in them, some 10 to 15. The Hamilton Social Medicine Response Team (Hamsmart) and Keeping Six, which represents people who use drugs, says the city should just leave them be. 

"Please, stop dismantling homeless encampments for the duration of the pandemic unless people are being moved to an indoor space where they will have a modicum of success," said Hamsmart doctors Jill Wiwcharuk and Tim O'Shea in a letter to city councillors.

"Currently, we see many of these folks being service restricted from all of the shelters in the city and turned down from city-run hotels due to the fact that their needs are too high. In the health-care world, that is like saying that you are too sick so we are not going to offer you any care."

Shelters don't suit everyone, they said in a written delegation to city council's emergency and community services committee. Neither do the hotel rooms the city is funding, where people have been evicted after two days because there's no mental health support.

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Shelters have restrictive rules, such as curfews and no pets, and come with drug and safety concerns, they say. An increasing number of people appear to be sleeping rough, and Hamsmart wants to keep track of them.

'The current system does not work for many people'

Guidelines from the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) say cities shouldn't clear encampments during the pandemic unless appropriate individual housing units are available. And they're not, the doctors say.

"We need to recognize that the current system does not work for many people who are sleeping rough, and work to either get them directly into permanent housing with appropriate supports or accommodate them in a shelter/motel that is low-barrier and high-support enough to meet their needs."

The groups have been calling for this since March. The city is still trying to find everyone a home, says Paul Johnson, director of the emergency operations centre.

Even in cases where people are staying in hotels, he said, there are few staff there to help.

"The amount of supportive housing we need in this community simply isn't there," Johnson said. "The supports are what make those situations viable."

Don't want to become San Francisco

The committee will look at a report within two months around how the city is dealing with encampments. Nrinder Nann, Ward 3 (central lower city) councillor, asked that it include how it measures up to the UN Special Rapporteur's new report on COVID-19 and homeless encampments.

Terry Whitehead, Ward 14 (west Mountain) councillor, bristled at that, saying the United Nations isn't "a purveyor of best practices" when it comes to homelessness. And the number of services to help people get into housing has grown over the last 30 years.

Hamilton doesn't want to allow encampments and become "like San Francisco," he said.

"To start creating an environment where it's OK to set up tents on public property," he said, "that's not the kind of community we want."

Three lawyers — Sharon Crowe and Nadine Watson from the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, and Wade Poziomka from Ross and McBride — told councillors there are legal reasons not to dismantle encampments, including following the principles of the Ontario Human Rights Commission's policy statement around the COVID-19 pandemic. 



Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca