Homeless couple lost everything in a fire, then lost their spot in the shelter system

A couple who have been homeless and experiencing addiction in Hamilton for the past two years had their encampment burned down after securing space in the city's shelter system. Then they lost their shelter space to salvage what was left.

'Just imagine you're freezing cold. It's wet, and all you have is the clothes on your back now'

Percy Heaslip's encampment was burned roughly two weeks ago while he and his fiancée, Jackie, were both staying in Hamilton's shelter system together. They lost most of their possessions in the fire. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Percy Heaslip and his partner, Jackie, had just secured a shelter space in Hamilton after living along rail trails and abandoned factories for the last two-and-a-half-years.

Their tent and most of their belongings sat near the former Dominion Glass factory while they stayed in a hotel space.

Then disaster struck.

"What little we do own was burned in a fire," Heaslip said.

The 43-year old and his partner think someone torched it, but have no way of knowing. They returned to check the damage. They found charred soil and melted plastic.

"All our clothes, pictures of family, anything valuable, anything sentimental, all our food, all our essentials … we pretty well lost everything we owned," Heaslip said.

"Just imagine you're freezing cold, it's wet, and all you have is the clothes on your back now … it's not new to us actually, but it was a kick in the arse to lose everything we owned, because it was all one shot."

The encampment near the former Dominion Glass factory was blackened after a fire. The flames destroyed clothing, food, essentials and melted plastic. (Submitted by Nicole Barati)

They spent the night outside as they tried to regroup and salvage whatever they could — but they didn't realize what it would cost them.

"We lost the hotel spot as well," he said.

"It's like the second or third time we've had to start over now."

Still enough shelter space for people: city

Aisling Higgins, a city spokesperson, said she couldn't comment on an individual's circumstances for privacy reasons, but said there are seven open spots for couples in the city's shelter system at the moment.

"In situations where a shelter hasn't worked out or an individual leaves for any particular reason outreach staff take an individual approach and work to determine previous (if any) barriers affecting someone's access within the system and attempt to resolve them," she wrote in an email.

Shawn MacKeigan, director of Men's services at Mission Services of Hamilton, said someone turning down a space one day, may accept it the next and listed a number of reasons why someone might not enter the system.

Problems like theft, interpersonal conflicts, addiction issues, behaviour issues and mental health issues can occur in shelters. Some also choose to stay in the system, then leave, and return again.

But the majority of people, MacKeigan added, don't do that too often.

"The housing and homelessness system is really working hard to respond to a public health crisis and that's really not easy to do ... to say ... 'we'll try and be as accommodating as it can as it relates to a public health crisis' it presents a new set of challenges," he said.

Housing Services has maintained that it has enough spaces for those on the streets and has made offers to people living rough, all of whom have declined "for their own individual reasons."

MacKeigan said the shelter system is as full as he's ever seen it. The city also has plans to keep growing the system for the winter.

There are still three open beds in the women's emergency shelter system, 49 beds in the men's system and "multiple rooms" available in hotels for couples, women and families.

The city also recently announced multiple new affordable housing initiatives.

"In Hamilton over the last six years we've spent, on average about $120 million [per year] for affordable housing and shelters and homelessness," Mayor Fred Eisenberger said Friday.

'It could happen to anybody'

Despite saying he lost his spot in the shelter system for checking on the fire, Heaslip said the city has done "a somewhat decent job" in its approach to homelessness.

He was previously staying at the former Dominion Glass factory behind Chapple Street in the Stipley neighbourhood. He ended up in Hamilton roughly two years ago after leaving Gananoque in an effort to find work with paving companies and leave his fentanyl addiction behind — but it only got worse when he arrived.

He stayed along rail trails before moving to the factory site. He had a tent set up in the corner of the lot while others lived beneath the foundation of the factory.

The encampment beneath the former Dominion Glass factory in Hamilton's east end shows how some people experiencing homelessness in the city are living. The water is dark and ankle deep in the abandoned building. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Locals like Nicole Barati, Tyler Kipling and Jason Carron have been visiting the area to help the people staying there.

"It's amazing. I wish there were more people like that," Heaslip said. "The community helps a lot too."

Outreach workers moved Heaslip and the others off the factory lot about a week ago because of a planned demolition.

Carron and Barati said it was all done humanely, but still feel the city could be doing more to open up shelter spaces and have people on the ground supporting homeless populations.

Heaslip said he and Jackie were offered space in the system, but if they accepted, they would be separated. They declined. Most others did too.

Jason Carron and Tyler Kipling help move a tent in a new encampment in Hamilton's east end. Both of them have been volunteering time to assist the homeless population during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Now, Heaslip and others are staying in a nearby park. As of Thursday morning, some found hotel space, but not Heaslip.

"We're aren't bad people … we're trying to fight the addiction," he said.

"It could happen to anybody. Try to be kind to them."