Hamilton's new process to remove encampments will not result in housing support, say advocates

As the City of Hamilton reveals new protocol for how it will remove encampments in the city, legal experts, doctors and advocates continue to stress that prohibition will do further harm to those experiencing homelessness. 

Tear-down protocol is triggered by complaints and ends with police involvement

The City of Hamilton has prohibited homeless encampments and outlined steps on how to deal with their removal. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

As the City of Hamilton reveals new protocol for how it will remove encampments in the city, legal experts, doctors and advocates continue to stress that prohibition will do further harm to those experiencing homelessness. 

Staff released a six-step enforcement plan Thursday, just over a week after returning to the use of the city's pre-pandemic bylaw that prohibits encampments — tents or structures — on city property, including parks. 

Stephanie Cox, a lawyer with the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, said the steps prioritize recreation over people's rights to security and compromise the safety of those with "nowhere left to go."

"It seems as if [the report is] just trying to check a box here," Cox said. "These individuals are inevitably going to move and go into hiding, most likely. And so they'll never actually receive the housing supports that come into play in the process at step 3."

A previous protocol, created during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowed people to stay in public spaces for up to 14 days. But council voted on Aug. 9 to repeal it, and by the end of the month returned to the more prohibitive policy. 

The series of six steps in a city report, presented in a city committee meeting Thursday, starts with a complaint being submitted to municipal law enforcement. It ends with calling the Hamilton Police Service and clean-up of encampment structures by the city's park and waste division. 

The city's housing outreach team would be then asked to come after the city officers seek "voluntary compliance," a term Cox calls "code for telling people to leave." People can't possibly be housed between the time they're told to leave and when police arrive, she said.

She added there's no real consideration in the steps for shelter capacity, outbreaks, or whether someone can function in a shelter before police would get involved. 

Monica Ciriello, director of licensing and bylaw services for the city, said that the outreach team will otherwise continue to work with those living in encampments. Ciriello said there would be a "72-hour response time" from the complaint, but didn't say how long people would have until police arrived. 

The city told CBC Hamilton previously that between April 2020 and March 2021, 750 people, including some who were living in encampments, were housed through city-funded case management and rapid-housing programs.

The City of Hamilton has come up with a series of six steps that start with a complaint to municipal law enforcement and ends in having the Hamilton Police Service respond, along with clean up of waste. (City of Hamilton)

Marcie McIlveen, outreach coordinator for Keeping Six, a community organization focused on harm reduction, said the new protocol won't work within the context of an ongoing housing crisis, opiate crisis, pandemic, and "amazing amounts" of shortages within the shelter system. 

"If we have no options for people, how is it fair to just move people," McIlveen said, noting she lived in tents from age 15 to 33. 

"I'm asking that we no longer move encampments, take down tents, and strip away what dignity people do have without offering them some form to find dignity."

A rally was held Thursday outside city hall ahead of the meeting, with advocates urging the city to put the 14-day protocol back in place. 

Shawn Arnold, 52, was in attendance at Thursday's rally and says he's never found it so difficult to afford an apartment as he does right now, calling the rental prices in Hamilton "outrageous."

He has been living outside since spring 2020 and says he wanders the city now, after having his tent recently ransacked by others. 

"I feel like I'm floating around with nowhere to go," he said. 

Arnold says he worries about the upcoming winter weather, noting the troubles of finding a place to stay warm amidst the pandemic. Shelters aren't an option, he said, as he feels the company would jeopardize progress he's made with substance use. 

Arnold said he's speaking with a housing worker, but doesn't know how that's progressing. 

Worker burnout, homelessness increasing

Dr. Jill Wiwcharuk, a member of the Hamilton Social Medicine Response team (Hamsmart) said people are desperate for housing. The situation is "devastating," she said, and it's costing lives. 

"The number of lives being lost in the last two weeks alone is more than we've seen in months," she said. 

There is extreme burnout among shelter and frontline workers with people "leaving in droves," she said. Wiwarchuk described struggling with a search for shelter spaces for individuals, calling city workers to "shuffle" numbers, but sometimes being unable to succeed. 

She urged the city to listen to workers and those who experience homelessness on how to approach the situation as the numbers of people on the streets continues to rise. 

"I'm seeing new faces every day, we're seeing large buildings of residents that are being renovicted. I'm seeing people that have never experienced homelessness before that are new to the system. This issue is just becoming bigger and bigger," she said. 

Elsewhere in Canada, such as Toronto and Halifax, police clear-outs of encampments have ended in violence. Toronto police forcibly removed the homeless and demonstrators in July, while Halifax police pepper-sprayed and arrested protesters who attempted to stop a tear-down in August.  

Ward 9 Councillor Brad Clark referenced the situation in Toronto during Thursday's meeting, calling it his "biggest fear."

Andrew Fletcher, 60, spoke to CBC Hamilton recently about living rough on-and-off for the past six years. Fletcher said he would give "every last cent to have a roof over my head right now" along with people in the tents around him. 

He said people are at the "end of our ropes" and enforcement starting back up doesn't change things. 

"Let them come. What else are you going to do to me?"

With files from Dan Taekema


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