City will head to court for right to dismantle the 51 tents pitched downtown

The city says it will challenge a court injunction preventing it from dismantling the more than 50 tents that have popped up downtown that house people who are sleeping rough.

Council went in camera for hours Friday to discuss a court injunction

Tents line Ferguson Avenue North near Barton Street in Hamilton. It's one of the city's largest homeless encampments. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The city says it will challenge a court injunction preventing it from dismantling the more than 50 tents that have popped up downtown that house people who are sleeping rough.

After a marathon council meeting Friday, the city issued a statement saying its lawyers are "working on gathering further evidence to challenge the current injunction prohibiting the city from involuntarily removing residents of encampments."

The tents, which are on Ferguson Avenue North and York Boulevard at FirstOntario Centre, have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Jason Farr, Ward 2 (downtown) councillor, says he counted 36 tents on Ferguson and 15 on York.

"It was 51 by my count this morning," he said during the meeting. "Fifty-one tents."

A group of doctors, lawyers and advocates got the temporary court injunction after the city abruptly dismantled two other encampments. It's scheduled to be heard in mid-September.

The group says encampments make it possible to keep track of and treat people during the pandemic. Two groups, Hamsmart and Keeping Six, have been distributing donated tents.

Councillors voted 9-3 Friday to fight the injunction. The city will keep trying to find people "safer and more humane housing options," it said in a statement.

"Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have seen an increase in encampment activity," the city said. "As a municipality, it is our responsibility to ensure we strike the right balance to support the health and safety requirements of our most vulnerable along with those of our entire community."

The city has worked with 162 people sleeping rough since the start of the pandemic, the statement said. More than 100 have moved into other living conditions, it said. And since April 1, no one has been refused at a shelter or hotel because of capacity issues.

"We continue to provide hotel spaces as well for males, females, couples and families with children. We are also continuing to explore where that capacity needs to be expanded or improved."

Public opinion on encampments is divided. Council received 42 letters Friday, most from people in favour of encampments.

"Living in a tent is safer, healthier and more dignified than than living completely isolated and unsheltered," wrote Vilma Rossi, a west-end resident who donated a tent. She feels "distress and disgust" at the idea of the city dismantling them. 

Family won't visit

Those opposed say encampments bring more drugs and crime to already struggling inner-city neighbourhoods.

"Our neighbourhood deserves a break," Robert Manley, a resident of Wesley Community Homes on Ferguson Avenue North, told councillors this week.

"Some deliveries [have been] refused. Some friends and family won't visit. Trespassers make it difficult to sit outside your own building."

Meanwhile, no one really knows how many more people are homeless because of COVID-19. Every year, the city tallies people living rough with a point-in-time count, but it cancelled it this year. 

Coun. Brad Clark (Ward 9, upper Stoney Creek) wondered Friday if the province lifting a ban on evictions will lead to more tent dwelling.

Anecdotal evidence

Paul Johnson, the city's general manager of healthy and safe communities, said he doesn't know.

The federal and provincial governments have provided another round of social service relief funding, Johnson said, and "we are looking at a few options." It may use that money to offer emergency cash to people facing eviction.

Information about eviction threats is also elusive. Ontario's Landlord and Tenant Board told CBC News this week that it has 232 Hamilton eviction applications right now. It didn't provide numbers for other years, though, so there's no way to compare.

Mohamad Bsat, a staff lawyer at the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, says he's seen an increase, mostly because people have lost their jobs.

"Given the types of cases I've been getting for the last four months, it would not surprise me if it's high."

Put tents in your front yard, councillor says

"We've been very busy" during the pandemic, he said. "We haven't stopped being busy the entire time."

The legal clinic was also a party in the injunction, as was Ross & McBride LLP.

Mike Wood chairs Hamilton ACORN, a tenant rights group that held a rally in front of city hall Friday. 

"We really don't know the full percentage of numbers out there, but we do know a lot of the evictions are due to COVID itself," Wood said this week.

Coun. Terry Whitehead (Ward 14, west Mountain) said on Friday that anyone in favour of encampments should give the city their addresses. 

"They might want to host some tents in their yards," he said.

How they voted

Who was in favour of fighting the injunction

Mayor Fred Eisenberger, Jason Farr (Ward 2), Chad Collins (5), Tom Jackson (6), Maria Pearson (10), Brenda Johnson (11), Arlene VanderBeek (13), Terry Whitehead (14), Judi Partridge (15).

Who was opposed

Maureen Wilson (1), Nrinder Nann (3), John-Paul Danko (8).

Absent for the vote

Sam Merulla (4), Esther Pauls (7), Brad Clark (9).


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