Hamilton

'Utter relief': Hamilton encampment resident Gord Smyth finds apartment after months in a tent

Gord Smyth spent Wednesday taking down tarps and packing up tents, preparing for what he hopes is his last move for a long time.

'I've never seen the situation as desperate as it is right now,' says doctor who visits encampments

Gord Smyth, 54, pauses for a moment on Nov. 24, 2021 while packing up the encampment he'd been staying at in Hamilton's Central Park for months. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Gord Smyth spent Wednesday taking down tarps and packing up tents, preparing for what he hopes is his last move for a long time.

As he cleared up the encampment he's called home for the past few months, the 54-year-old had one thing on his mind — the CityHousing Hamilton apartment he's finally secured, or, more specifically, the hot shower it comes with.

"I haven't even been thinking of it as a new place to live. I've been thinking of it as a shower and a bathroom," he said.

"We're gonna be in there for a couple of days scrubbing off six months worth of dirt."

Smyth said he began living on the street in June after he was evicted from his longtime apartment when the property owner decided to demolish it to make way for condominiums.

He set up camp at various sites around the city but said he was moved along every few days or weeks — and in one case after just a few hours — under the city's bylaw barring tents in public spaces.

"It's definitely not camping, it's surviving," Smyth said.

"It's a really hard life. You've got to look after food, you've got to look after your hygiene and a lot of that is impossible."

Looking forward to a comfortable bed

Central Park was where he decided to stand his ground after arriving in August.

Smyth was one of five people who had lived in encampments and was named in an application to Superior Court seeking an injunction to stop the City of Hamilton from tearing them down.

"Moving every two weeks, or moving every day or moving every time you have to move wasn't acceptable," he said on Wednesday.

The attempt for an injunction ultimately failed.

But Smyth said advocates and agencies, including police, pushed for him to be allowed to stay in the park while he continued to fight for housing.

On Wednesday he signed a lease for an apartment and collected the keys.

"Relief, utter relief," he said, describing how it felt.

"[I'm] looking forward to sleeping in a comfortable bed, looking forward to not having to run the generator or pay for fuel to stay warm, sleeping in clothes under so many sleeping bags."

City to share plans on Dec. 9

Dr. Jill Wiwcharuk said she believes Smyth's process to find housing was likely sped up by the fact he was allowed to stay in one place. Others haven't been so fortunate.

As a member of the Hamilton Social Medicine Response Team (Hamsmart), the doctor said she visits multiple encampments each week and is struck by the desperation she sees there.

Dr. Jill Wiwcharuk is an inner city doctor who works primarily with people who are homeless and struggling with addictions. (Shelter Health Network)

"Every time I'm at an encampment I'm having people tell me how much they want to get inside," said Wiwcharuk.

"Time and time again people are coming to me asking for help getting inside and there is simply not enough space."

That's especially true for women and couples, she said, adding she's "disgusted" it took until October for city staff to acknowledge there aren't enough shelter beds, particularly for women.

In a statement to CBC the city said it appreciates the situation is "difficult for all involved — those experiencing homelessness, concerned residents, and staff on the front lines."

Spokesperson Aisling Higgins said 166 shelter spaces have been added to the system during the pandemic, but did recognize that even with the increased capacity, there are "some occasions" where there's more need than there are beds.

Staff will provide a "snapshot of housing and homelessness in Hamilton," including plans for winter and changes to the shelter system, which would be shared during a Dec. 9 meeting, she said.

A 'desperate' situation

Wiwcharuk said the impact of shelter and housing shortages can already been seen in "horrific" outcomes, including two suspected overdose deaths this week alone.

"I've never seen the situation as desperate as it is right now," she said. "It's awful."

Smyth said securing an apartment was a big weight off his shoulders.

But despite finding a permanent place to live, "it's not over."

He pointed to other encampments across the city, including at J.C. Beemer Park where a fire destroyed several tents and people's belongings on Wednesday morning.

Smyth smiles while take a break from packing up his tents and tarps. Despite finding an apartment, he said encampment residents across the city continue to face struggles. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

"It's devastating. It's not going to go away," said Smyth.

"It can happen to anybody and if you're not prepared best find a tent and some place to hide because that's the only option the city has right now."

Smyth still counts himself among those at risk and said the fear that a knock on the door could send him right back to an encampment is there, at the back of his mind.

"The fear never goes away," he said. "It's always going to be present."

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