Hamilton reinstates bylaw prohibiting encampments, prompting condemnation from advocates, legal clinic

Legal groups and homelessness advocates are speaking out against the city's decision to return to pre-pandemic enforcement at encampments, saying that tearing down tents won't solve housing issues and will only further traumatize the people living in them.

'A tent in a park is no one's first option,' says Ontario Alliance to End Homelessness

The city has announced that, starting Monday, bylaws barring camping in city parks will again be enforced. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The City of Hamilton announced Monday the return to enforcing bylaws that prohibit camping in parks.

It's a decision that's been met with criticism from legal groups and housing advocates, who say tearing down tents won't solve housing issues and will only further traumatize the people living in them.

The city previously created an encampment protocol that allowed people to stay in public spaces for up to 14 days, but in an emergency meeting three weeks ago, council voted to return to pre-pandemic enforcement.

The Hamilton Community Legal Clinic is among the organizations that has spoken out against the change.

In a statement shared Monday, the clinic called it a  "misguided attack on people who are already struggling to survive without adequate shelter, food, medical care, bathrooms, and potable water."

The encampment protocol was created following a court injunction, brought by a group of doctors, lawyers, including from the legal clinic, in July 2020, which temporarily blocked the city from removing people camping in public areas and tearing down their tents.

Now the clinic is calling for the city to not dismantle shelters and instead sit down with local organizations and encampment residents to work out a new strategy.

"Despite the protocol, many encampment residents continue to remain without housing, signalling the root of this problem: a lack of adequate affordable housing, long term health care supports, and safe shelter spaces," the statement reads.

 "None of these fundamental root causes of homelessness are being appropriately addressed, which simply leaves unhoused residents to bear the brunt."

City says it's working with encampment residents

In its own statement, the city said its approach will "take into consideration the safety and well-being of individuals living outdoors" along with community needs such as access to the outdoors and recreation.

It added that the city's encampment response team is continuing to work with encampment residents and offer housing options, including shelter space "whenever possible."

Anticipating Monday's change in enforcement, CBC Hamilton requested interviews with city staff early last week about what enforcement would entail once the new protocol was in place. City spokesperson Michelle Shantz said staff were not available to speak with a reporter.

In response to questions sent by email throughout last week about what enforcement would look like and whether bylaw and police officers would be involved, the city said only that the protocol was being finalized.

CBC requested another interview Monday and was again told by Shantz that staff were unavailable.

Instead, she shared a link to the city's parks bylaws, which say that no one can camp or erect a tent or structure in a park without a permit. Shantz also said bylaw officers would be responding when those rules are not being obeyed.

A tent is 'no one's first option'

The Shift, a Canada-based organization that views housing as a human right, took issue with the city's approach to encampments, writing that it believes the city risks making the housing crisis worse, and violating the rights of hundreds of people.

The Ontario Alliance to End Homelessness also responded to Hamilton's decision, saying it would only force people to move to another park, bridge or unsafe setting.

"A tent in a park is no one's first option, and we understand that parks cannot be a permanent housing solution. However, the forcible removal of encampment residents must end," read a statement from the OAEH.

"This inflicts further trauma ... and does not address the issues you are trying to solve."

The city's statement on Monday said staff are planning to present a report at the next Emergency and Community Services Committee with "more detail" on the city's response going forward. That meeting is scheduled for next week Thursday.