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Homeless in Hamilton: 40 per cent report being attacked, beat up

Two out of five people living on the streets or in homeless shelters in Hamilton said they've been attacked or beaten up since becoming homeless, a survey of 454 homeless people in the city core found last month.

'Violence of various sorts is an ever-present spectre in the lives of people who are homeless'

A survey of Hamiltonians living on the streets or in shelters found that 40 per cent reported being attacked or beaten up since becoming homeless. (Pabak Sarkar, Flickr cc)

Two out of five people living on the streets or in homeless shelters in Hamilton said they've been attacked or beaten up since becoming homeless, a survey of 454 homeless people in the city core found last month.

And service providers and police say that statistic likely includes crimes that weren't formally reported. 

The statistic underscores the vulnerability of people with unstable places to sleep, and resonates with advocates eyeing a recent spate of violence against homeless people elsewhere in the country. 

"I think this number's pretty compelling given the recent articles and news reports across Canada about those that have been murdered and violently attacked in Winnipeg and Nova Scotia," said Amanda DiFalco, the city's homelessness services coordinator. "And I would venture to say that that's a real possibility here in Hamilton, as well."

The survey's finding that 40 per cent of people experiencing homelessness didn't surprise Katherine Kalinowski, assistant executive director at Good Shepherd Centres.

"Violence of various sorts is an ever-present spectre in the lives of people who are homeless," she said.

That so many people report being attacked confronts some "stereotypes and myths about who homeless people are," she said, "that they are 'scary' or are a threat to safety or community."

"But perhaps they are not the threat, but rather, they're the vulnerable ones," Kalinowski said.

'We would see that as a crisis'

Greg Tedesco is a social worker with the Hamilton Public Health street outreach team. Just because Hamilton hasn't had a recent high-profile murder or violent attack doesn't mean there's not pervasive violence and insecurity on the street, he said.

"It's the high-profile incidents that get in the news, but it's not always the extreme sorts of things," he said. "People's experience of violence can vary. People staying on the street are in a very vulnerable position."

The survey was done as part of Hamilton's "20,000 Homes" campaign, an effort aiming to paint a picture of who in Hamilton is homeless and how best to help. Volunteers surveyed more than 450 homeless individuals and families about where they sleep, their health status and other factors in their homelessness.

In Waterloo and Ottawa, other cities where the 20,000 Homes survey has been done so far, the numbers are similar. Waterloo's survey of 281 homeless people found that 41 per cent said they'd been victim of a violent attack since becoming homeless.

Stephen Gaetz, director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness at York University in Toronto, said after that study in Waterloo that alarm bells should be going off for policy-makers and police.

"If that was my neighbourhood or your neighbourhood I kind of feel like there would be troops on the streets," Gaetz said. "We would see that as a crisis."

'The number is alarming to us'

Kalinowski said the prospect of reporting a violent attacker or, in some cases, leaving the risky housing situation, is a daunting thing to overcome for some people.

"Very often they don't feel comfortable seeking safety or even reporting their experiences, because they've have other (negative) experiences with systems," she said. "Having worked in shelters for years, I've seen many people at shelters who report or show evidence of being physically assaulted who don't report it."

Many of the crimes people told surveyors about last month may not have been formally reported to the police, agreed John Canaris, acting staff sergeant of the service's ACTION team.

"The number is alarming to us, and the bigger question is why are they not reporting it, what are the underlying issues as to why they're not reporting?" Canaris said.

"When we read that (statistic) we were concerned about that," he said. "But that's a hard one for us because our crime stats don't indicate if the people are homeless. We can encourage people to report crimes but we can't force people to report crimes."

After this survey came out, police tasked their "Social Navigator" —  a staff person who works with at-risk individuals to help connect them with needed services —with asking people in shelters, meal centres and on the streets specifically about whether they've been attacked, and encouraging them to report such attacks.

Foot and bike patrol officers are sent frequently to stop in at shelters and free meal programs to talk with people, to try to build relationships and trust, Canaris said.

Kalinowski agreed that the organizations in Hamilton that provide social services have good relationships with the police and the medical system. But the number of people reporting being attacked underlies the challenge.

"Do we have perfect responses? We have a lot of work to do."

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett

With files from Canadian Press

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