Advocates for Hamilton’s homeless granted injunction preventing removal of encampments

A picture of a former homeless encampment on Ferguson Avenue North near Barton Street East in Hamilton, Ont. Lisa Polewski / Global News

A lawyer representing advocates supporting residents in the growing number of “tent-cities” in Hamilton says Ontario’s superior court has granted an injunction preventing the city from “involuntarily removing” encampments from public spaces.

Wade Poziomka of Ross & McBride LLP told Global News that the injunction is good for a period of 10 days and forbids the city from clearing away individuals who are homeless in encampments on public spaces.

On Wednesday, downtown Hamilton councillor Jason Farr told Global News the city was ‘hoping’ the residents would choose either housing, hotels or a shelter by Friday but said there is ‘no direction’ toward ‘dismantling’ any encampments.

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“It was our hope in more recent engagement that they would take us up on the offer for safer and more humane housing conditions, whether it be housing, hotels or shelters,” Farr said, “They all get those options presented to them.”

The director of Hamilton’s emergency operations centre (EOC) says the city has been stepping up efforts to relocate individuals in the city’s encampments.

Paul Johnson says a collaboration with the city’s mental health street outreach program, public health, social workers, police and paramedics have been connecting with the homeless to offer space in a shelter or some type of housing.

“So that team is there. Good Shepherd Center’s mission services and obviously HamSMART and Keeping Six are all working in terms of some outreach and they’ve been talking,” Johnson said, “Some things we disagree on, but there’s much that we agree on. The thing we agree on is, of course, that the best solution for folks is to get them into a shelter and ultimately permanent housing.”

Poziomka says the legal action was taken because the groups he represents do not believe the city is offering “proper supports” for the homeless residents.

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“I’m not casting all the blame on the city for this, what I’m suggesting is that we need more affordable housing,” said Poziomka, “We need more support in the shelter systems to enable people who have different needs to be able to be there, and right now, we just don’t have that.”

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New encampments around Hamilton have been on the rise since the COVID-19 pandemic began.  In May and June, the city tore down two large encampments, one not far from the General Hospital at Jackie Washington Rotary Park and another at the former John A. McDonald Secondary School downtown.

However, the tear-downs did not solve the problem as more encampments popped up in other spots including on the escarpment rail trail, on Ferguson Avenue between Camden and Barton Streets and in Farr’s constituency on York Street where he says he counted nine tents on Tuesday night.

The city has tried to deal with the increase in homelessness through a number of campaigns including the set up of a men’s homeless shelter at rink level of First Ontario Centre – operated by Good Shepherd – and an encampment task force dismantling unsanctioned sites through collaboration with housing services, bylaw officers, police, and paramedics.

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Mayor Fred Eisenberger has said the “tent cities” have been a “difficult challenge” due to occupants refusing the city’s help to place them in stable housing environments.

The problem for the city, according to the mayor, is the “unsanitary” nature of most encampments which would not only have an adverse effect on those living in them but potentially others living in nearby residential neighbourhoods.

“I don’t want them to become, you know, slums of tent cities that cause potentially all kinds of different problems, including the potential spread of this virus,” Eisenberger said.

But Poziomka suggest the city does not have adequate refuge for people who have serious mental health issues or addictions and are not capable of going into one the three shelter options offered by the city

“And so when you tear down a homeless encampment, what’s left for them?” Poziomka asked. “You’re saying we don’t have adequate housing for you. You can go on public spaces, but you can’t erect shelters to protect yourself from the elements. And that’s what we’re fighting right now.”

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The EOC’s Johnson insists there are supports in the city’s housing programs for individuals dealing with addictions and those with mental health issues.

“Many of our shelters and in our hotels have a harm reduction approach, we allow people we know are using to use,” said Johnson, “In 2006 we were one of the first communities to have a management of alcohol program prescribing alcohol to street alcoholics. So we have options in this community.”

Johnson admits there may be a ‘small number’ of people whose issues go beyond what’s available but says the thought that those with mental health and addiction issues cannot access hotels or shelters is false.

Farr says he appreciates the work HamSMART and Keeping Six are doing in terms of donating tents and other supports for the encampment residents but says ultimately, most occupations on public property counter city laws.

“I think what we’re seeing here is a few agencies working counter to our laws in this city, laws that are no different than any other city and getting growing support by playing a narrative that we are violating human rights and we’re not providing options,” said Farr.

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Hamilton’s council is awaiting the completion of a staff report, tied to the city’s encampment task force, which is expected in August to offer recommendations on how to tackle the growing issue.

However, Farr suggests the problem may need to be dealt with in some manner before then.

“We have, unfortunately, a few organizations that are spending a great deal of their time gaining support to go against what is our current bylaw,” Farr said. “Our current bylaw is there is no overnight tenting or camping in city parks, on city streets here in this city, and it is not unlike any other city in Ontario.”

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