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COVID-19: Advocates urge Hamilton police not to fine homeless, call for more hygiene, rest stations

St. Patrick's Catholic Church in downtown Hamilton will be opening its doors to the city's homeless residents who are in need of a space for rest and hygiene during the pandemic.
St. Patrick's Catholic Church in downtown Hamilton will be opening its doors to the city's homeless residents who are in need of a space for rest and hygiene during the pandemic. Will Erskine / 900 CHML

Those who work with Hamilton’s vulnerable residents are urging the city to provide more support for those who are homeless during the coronavirus pandemic — including by not handing out fines to those who gather in public.

Keeping Six and the Hamilton Social Medicine Response Team (HAMSMaRT) said they confirmed that at least two people who are homeless in Hamilton were fined $750 under new provincial rules that ban gatherings of more than five people.

“As we await further access to rest and hygiene stations, we implore the city and the province to stop criminalizing people who are homeless and instead do absolutely everything in their power to make it possible for people to participate in physical distancing with dignity,” the organizers wrote in an email update.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — More spaces needed for Hamilton’s homeless to self-isolate, say advocates

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Hamilton police Chief Eric Girt said police are trying to ensure compliance and that they’re issuing warnings first, only handing out fines as a last resort.

“People were warned, told about the distancing and the grouping — in fact, as I understand it, some were sharing a bottle between themselves,” Girt said during the city’s briefing on Monday. “We’ve certainly explained it to a number of people. Some people remain oppositional, and then we’re put in a spot where we may have to do enforcement.”

Claire Bodkin of HAMSMaRT said this is a public health problem, not a policing problem, and it’s important to look at why people aren’t practising physical distancing.

“Most Hamiltonians have heard that there were people ticketed on the golf course for playing golf,” Bodkin told Global News Radio 900 CHML’s Bill Kelly Show. “That reason why is very, very different than a person who doesn’t have a home and who isn’t able to practise physical distancing because they don’t have any home to be in or anywhere to go.”

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Bodkin said the city needs to set up more rest and hygiene stations instead of fining those who don’t have anywhere to self-isolate. Places where those who are homeless would often go during the day, including public libraries and restaurants, are now closed, which leaves them with far fewer options.

READ MORE: Pandemic response fund delivers $2M to agencies helping vulnerable Hamiltonians

One local institution that Bodkin is applauding is St. Patrick’s Catholic Church at King Street East and Victoria Avenue North. Starting Tuesday afternoon, the church will be open as a rest and hygiene station every afternoon, seven days a week.

Bodkin said both the city of Hamilton and other local community agencies should be trying to emulate what St. Patrick’s is doing.

“If we keep giving out tickets, people are going to keep being out in public because they don’t have anywhere else to go. They don’t have any other options. So we give out tickets but we haven’t actually accomplished our goal, which is trying to keep everyone in Hamilton healthy and safe during this pandemic.”

Lisa Polewski / 900 CHML
Lisa Polewski / 900 CHML. Lisa Polewski / 900 CHML

The city has installed portable washrooms and sinks at Bay Street and York Boulevard, directly outside of FirstOntario Centre, to give residents in need a place to clean up.

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Paul Johnson, the director of Hamilton’s emergency operations centre, said the city is working on announcing more supports for homeless residents, which are expected to be rolled out over the next few days.