Hamilton

'There's nowhere to go': Encampment resident lost everything in fire at J.C. Beemer Park

Talal Abdulwahid returned to J.C. Beemer Park Wednesday morning to find everything he owned had been destroyed. He was offered a bed at a crisis centre, but says he'll likely end up back on the street in four or five days.

'I have nothing left but the clothes I have on,' says Talal Abdulwahid

Talal Abdulwahid, 48, says he lost everything but the clothes on his back when the tent he had been staying in at J.C. Beemer Park in Hamilton burned to the ground on Wednesday morning. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Talal Abdulwahid returned to J.C. Beemer Park Wednesday morning to find everything he owned had been destroyed.

He'd been staying in the park for roughly four months, but in a just a few minutes, his tent and all of his belongings went up in flames.

"When I come back … I find out my tent got burned to the ground," he said.

"I have nothing left but the clothes I have on. I lost everything."

Fortunately, the 48-year-old was staying with a friend the night before and was not in his tent when it caught fire.

Still, Abdulwahid said he lost photos and other sentimental items that can't be replaced.

Emergency crews were called to the park just before 6 a.m.

Police said they found several tents burning with flames shooting as high as 20 feet in the air. They worked with fire fighters to pull multiple people out of tents nearby before they caught fire, police said in a media release.

"Several explosions" caused by propane tanks and generators also rocked the park and a hydro line was damaged, said police who described the conditions there as "unsafe."

The fire is not believed to be criminal and no injuries were reported, police said.

2 people arrested at protest

Dozens of officers were at the park throughout the day Wednesday as bylaw officers moved to evict those who had been staying there, including Abdulwahid.

Protesters with the Hamilton Encampment Support Network (HESN) who tried to stop the evictions clashed with police and two people were arrested — a 33-year-old man charged with obstructing police and a 27-year-old woman charged with assaulting a police officer.

Vic Wojciechowska, a member of HESN, said the protesters were "violently arrested" and described the city's response to the fire as "discompassionate and dehumanizing."

Dozens of police and bylaw officers were at the park Wednesday as workers cleared the tents and filled a truck with items from the encampment. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

They compared the actions of Hamilton police to the large-scale response and arrests during encampment standoffs in Toronto this past summer at Trinity Bellwoods Park and Lamport Stadium.

A spokesperson for the city said its enforcement at the park was in response to the fire, which "created health and safety concerns" for both the encampment residents and others living nearby.

Enforcement only occurs after the city's housing team has provided encampment residents with a list of their options, said Michelle Shantz.

"The city's primary goal is to connect people in encampments with safer and more human housing options," she said in an email.

Councillor says solutions should be centred in human rights

But Coun. Nrinder Nann, whose ward includes J.C. Beemer Park, issued a statement saying the "clashes" at the park were exactly what some councillors, housing and health advocates "have been concerned about happening in Hamilton."

"An overemphasis on encampment enforcement versus leading with a comprehensive housing and health strategy results in further divisions in our community and an expenditure of public funds on the wrong thing," she said in posts on social media. "Enforcement does not solve homelessness!"

Nann said she plans to table a motion during next emergency and community services committee meeting on Dec. 9, calling for "human rights-centred solutions" for encampments.

Wojciechowska said only temporary hotel rooms or beds in a crisis centre were offered to those being forced to leave J.C. Beemer, stressing that winter is coming and the temperature is dropping.

"There's no plan in place for residents after the imminent and inevitable discharge from these options," they said.

Abdulwahid said he had been set up with a bed at a crisis centre, but that comes with a maximum stay of four or five days.

Then "[I'm] obviously back on the street again," he said.

"I feel very bad for everyone. There's no solution. There's nowhere to go."

Police and the city say the encampment area was not safe after the fire tore through several tents. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

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