'It makes you feel worthless,' says woman living in Gage Park as Hamilton moves to clear tents

As she stared out into the rain Tuesday afternoon, a woman living in an encampment at Gage Park said she just needed a few more days for the ice trapping her tent to thaw and to figure out where to go next.

City says outreach workers visit encampment regularly but residents 'refuse' support

The city has told people living in an encampment at Gage Park that they need to move on. A woman staying there says she needs more time for the ice that's stuck to her tent to thaw. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

As she stared out into the rain Tuesday afternoon, a woman living in an encampment at Gage Park in Hamilton's east end said she just needed a few more days for the ice trapping her tent to thaw and to figure out where to go next.

The woman told CBC she has been staying in one of two tents huddled near the Lawrence Road entrance since mid-January after being removed from several other parks in recent months.

The city has given notice that she and others living in tents in Gage Park have until Thursday to leave.

CBC has agreed to withhold the woman's name because she is concerned about the impact on her ability to find future work and housing. 

"I am treated like a completely worthless [person]. A problem," she said. "Literally as a piece of garbage that if you dispose of it somewhere far away, that is a solution."

She's not alone. Stephanie Cox, a lawyer at Hamilton Community Legal Clinic and co-counsel on a charter challenge in the works against park evictions, said people living in parks are now constantly in fear of confrontations with police and the potential for their possessions to be taken.

"Many are finding themselves running further to the margins and encamping in forests," Cox said during a panel on encampment evictions held by the Hamilton chapter of the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) on Wednesday. 

The charter challenge is coming sometime in the fall, according to Wade Poziomka, a lawyer at Ross & McBride LLP, who is working with Cox.

An update to councillors following a public works department budget meeting on Jan. 26 showed 262 "encampment cleanups" were completed last year — 176 of which were done by the city and another 86 completed by a contractor.

A review of work orders showed those operations happened at 60 unique sites, the update states. It adds that there were multiple visits made to the same sites, but those were typically spread out over weeks and months.

The city said that 35 people showed up at more than one encampment that was cleaned up, including 20 individuals who were at three or more sites.

Risk of violence, frostbite and hypothermia

On Wednesday's panel, which focused on the impact of encampment evictions on women in particular, Cox said evictions result in increased risk of violence and weather-related harm like frostbite and hypothermia. It is especially dangerous for women at risk of sexual violence, who often can't get into women's shelters that are at capacity, Cox added. 

"Their preference is, in light of the circumstances, to get a tent, to find a secure location and to do that with others because there is safety in numbers."

The upcoming charter claim will argue that encampment evictions violate rights enshrined in Canada's constitution, including the right to "security of the person," Cox said.

Back in Gage Park, the woman living there this week showed how she keeps herself warm. 

Her setup includes two tents, one inside the other and wrapped in reflective emergency blankets to keep in the heat.

The base of the tent was frozen to the ground, she said, explaining that any attempt to remove it would tear up the only shelter she has.

The woman also shared a photo of the notice from the city dated Feb.18 that was handed to her following a recent visit by bylaw officers.

It states that the woman had violated bylaws against camping without a permit and littering in the park and had until 9 a.m. Thursday to comply.

The woman said she and a man living in the tent next to hers are both frantically looking for another place to stay. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The notice says if the bylaws aren't complied with, the city may "arrange for the violation to be corrected."

A spokesperson for the city confirmed a notice was issued to the encampment residents last week and that it continues to enforce its bylaw against camping in public spaces.

"The City's Housing Focused Outreach team have been visiting the Gage Park location very regularly and at least 3 times per week over the past several weeks engaging with individuals at this location at various times," wrote city spokesperson Michelle Shantz in an email.

She added that staff offered help finding shelter, accessing food programs and warming centres but the people living in the park "continue to refuse engagement and support."

'Nowhere to go'

CBC visited three tents in the park on Tuesday, including one which has long been in place a short walk from the Hamilton Children's Museum, but the woman CBC spoke to appeared to be the only person there at the time. She said the person living next to her was away, "frantically" looking for another place to stay.

As for her own needs? "I would like more time for the ice to thaw," she said, pointing to the ice. "The sharp edges will cut into the fabrics."

The woman said she has been living rough since September and doesn't want to give up her aging pet cat in order to go into a shelter. Bylaw officers have told her to move on from at least two other parks, she said.

"It makes you feel worthless. It makes you feel like … if you go in the forest and somebody kills you, that's a solution to the problem of you for the city."

If the city is willing to provide a few more days for the ice and snow to thaw, the woman said she plans to find another place to set up her tent.

But, she said, without the federal and provincial governments stepping up support and capping rent, she doesn't see a solution.

"There's nowhere to go. Anywhere you go it's 'How dare you exist,'" she said.

"You're to disappear out of sight."