10-day injunction bars city from forcefully removing homeless from encampments

A group of doctors, lawyers and harm reduction advocates have won a 10-day injunction barring the city from forcing homeless people to leave encampments they've been living in.

Hamilton Community Legal Clinic described the injunction as a 'big win'

This pair of tents is part of an encampment in front of the FirstOntario Centre. (CBC)

A group of doctors, lawyers and harm reduction advocates have won a 10-day injunction that bars the city from forcing homeless people living in encampments to leave their tents.

"This morning ... the Superior Court granted an injunction for a period of 10 days preventing the [city] from involuntarily removing individuals who are homeless from encampments on public spaces," tweeted Hamilton human rights lawyer Wade Poziomka.

A statement from the city confirmed the injunction, saying it prohibits officials from taking any further steps to evict people, but staff will still reach out to those at the encampments to make sure they're aware of their housing options "on a voluntary basis."

"City staff will continue working together with homeless-serving agency partners, in compliance with the today's injunction, to connect individuals sleeping rough with available community resources and supports as required," it reads.

The injunction is just the latest in a flurry of activity around the encampments in recent days.

In a statement released Thursday, Hamilton Harm Reduction Action League (Keeping Six), said it and other organizations were notified Tuesday that those living in the encampments outside the FirstOntario Centre and along Ferguson Avenue North had until Friday to accept a shelter, hotel, housing or "be moved on."

Keeping Six added it was ultimately unable to get written assurance no one would be removed against their will, so the group, along with the Hamilton Social Medicine Response Team (Hamsmart), Hamilton Community Legal Clinic and Ross & McBride LLP, filed the injunction.

Paul Johnson, general manager of Hamilton's healthy and safe communities department, said the city had set a deadline for the encampments, but had no plans to physically remove anyone.

"These are getting very large," he explained. "Encampments are not the solution and we needed to ratchet up our work to understand what people need and help to move larger numbers than we have been into shelter or housing."

He noted outreach workers have reported new faces at the encampments and it appears the city's homeless population has grown "quite a large amount," but officials aren't sure why.

Staff are working on individual plans for those staying in the encampments and looking for creative ways to house people, according to Johnson, but a city bylaw dictates people can't camp on public property indefinitely, so they can't stay.

The Hamilton Community Legal Clinic described the injunction as a "big win" on Twitter Thursday, while Keeping Six thanked everyone who responded to their call to contact councillors about the plan to remove the tents.

"The efforts of people to stand with those living in encampments and for a City where everyone has access to dignified housing is heartening," read its statement, adding the organization wants to stop the "inhumane practice of moving people on from encampments who have nowhere else to go."

One of the encampments is made up of rows of tents on Ferguson Avenue North. (CBC)

Poziomka said he believes councillors need to make sure their decisions are in the best interest of everyone living in Hamilton — even those who are marginalized and unlikely to vote.

"Laws and bylaws can sometimes lead to unfair results and cause harm. That is precisely why staff have discretion in enforcing these bylaws. To simply point to a bylaw and say it must be enforced, despite the harm, shows frightening lack of understanding of municipal governance," he stated in a media release announcing the group had filed a motion for the injunction.

Johnson said the city's legal team will be reviewing the order.

"We will have to address this because it essentially set aside a bylaw for the City of Hamilton," he said.

"We have to find a way where we can balance what we need to do to operate successfully as a city with how we support people who need our help."