Hamilton's homeless campers told to pack up, get out but say there's nowhere to go
Councillor says the only real solution to homelessness is a national housing strategy
Billy Case and his girlfriend AJ sorted through a pile of everything they own Thursday afternoon, deciding what they'll be able to carry on their backs and what they'll have to leave behind.
They occupy one of several encampments scattered along the rail trail near the Wentworth stairs. They say last weekend police told them they have to pack up and get out, so the city can clean up their camp.
- People living in tents at Barton/Tiffany reflects a growing crisis: advocates
- What happens when the city, police 'clean up' a tent city
For Case, that order was the latest in a long line of evictions that started with an apartment, then alleyways and under bridges, and finally from the couple's small tent in the woods.
"We're losing everything again," he said. "It's been 10, 20 times at least. It feels like every time we get something it gets ransacked or we have to leave."
There aren't as many people here. It's quiet. I can have some space to myself.- Amanda Doucet
This summer in Hamilton homelessness has been very visible with more people living rough, as rising rent and crowded shelters push some of the city's most vulnerable to sleep on street corners and under tarps tied between trees.
Residents raise concerns
The campers are technically squatting in Matthew Green's territory. The Ward 3 councillor said the woods along the trail have a long history of hosting the homeless, but in years past they've tended to live deeper in the bush, away from joggers and cyclists.
In recent months, some have erected tents right along the path. That's been a problem.
"I have heard loudly from the community" about their concerns, he said, adding reports range from dogs running around off leash to "confrontations" with the people who are camped out.
Amanda Doucet was one of the people living right along the trail. She said police came and told her to leave, so she moved her tent and her two dogs, Bear and Rosie, a short walk away.
"I was getting yelled at for being on the side of the trail," she said. "They keep asking me when I'll leave. It's frustrating."
Before heading to the bush, Doucet was living on the street or bouncing between her mom and stepmom's houses.
She said she's considered staying in a shelter, but explained she isn't willing to leave her dogs.
"They're my responsibility, so I have to watch them."
Doucet's hands and face were streaked with dirt from setting up her new site, but she said staying in the woods offers something that's often rare to find in shelters — peace.
"There aren't as many people here," she said. "It's quiet. I can have some space to myself."
Spiking evictions and rising rent
Crowded shelters are a complaint Sara Mayo has heard before through her role with Hamilton's Social Planning and Research Council (SPRC). The social planner said the city's shelters are running at 100 per cent capacity.
"There is no room at the inn in the shelters anymore and it's a much more stressful situation for both staff and shelter users when it's full."
A lack of space is one obstacle faced by homeless people, but the biggest barrier to finding housing is affordability, she added.
There is no room at the inn in the shelters anymore and it's a much more stressful situation for both staff and shelter users when it's full.- Sara Mayo, Social Planning and Research Council
The SPRC put out a report called "Out of Control" in June. It showed spiking eviction rates and the fact that rent in the city went up by an annual average of 3.9 per cent, more than double that of Quebec City.
"Hamilton has seen higher than average housing prices for Ontario for the past few years," she Mayo. "It's completely unsustainable and out of control."
Case and AJ know this firsthand. The couple was kicked out of their apartment after a fight and soon realized rent was out of reach, so they headed for the woods with their dog Mystery.
"It's too much," said AJ. "For a one-bedroom you're looking for more than $800, plus hydro. It's crazy."
A complicated problem
Green described the realities faced by homeless people as "one of the most complicated aspects of his work" and something he's been trying to draw attention to ever since he was elected.
"We can't control where folks reemerge after they're displaced," he said. "Without criminalizing poverty how do we answer the question of … being in a direct housing crisis in Hamilton?"
The councillor said all levels of government, but especially the federal government, need to work toward a national housing strategy or tent cities will continue to pop up across the country.
Michelle Baird is a director with Public Health, which has been working with police, Street Outreach, paramedics and the city's Housing Department to help those living along the trail and around the city.
"We don't know for sure if it's an increasing problem or if it's just becoming a more visible problem," she said.
Baird said homelessness is a complicated issue that can stem from addiction, abuse, job loss and mental illness, so staff are trying to find the best-possible fit for people based on their specific needs.