Vital Signs report says life was more difficult for Hamilton’s vulnerable amid pandemic

An expansion of Hamilton's urban boundary would be designed to help accommodate a projected population increase of more than a quarter-million residents over the next three decades. Global News

The foundation that claims its vision is to drive positive change in Hamilton says the COVID-19 pandemic made life very difficult for the city’s most vulnerable, according to the 2021 version of its Vital Signs report.

The latest study supported by the Hamilton Community Foundation (HCF) paints a picture of how life in the city was aggravated by the pandemic and for the most part, negatively affected people living in multigenerational households, those precariously housed, and those working in front line services.

Read more: COVID-19 more prevalent among Hamilton’s low-income and racialized residents: public health

Terry Cooke, president and CEO of the HCF, says the research shows those groups typically have lower incomes and “blue collar” jobs which generally made them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19.

“The sad reality is that many of us who have secured jobs where we’ve been able to work remotely, where we own our own home, we’ve seen the escalation in values of home assets and will emerge from this in some ways stronger economically,” Cooke said.

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“But for a large portion of this community, the picture is very different and much more dismal.”

Here’s a quick look at some key highlights from the report, compiled through surveys and data from local organizations, which singled out 10 areas significantly impacted by the coronavirus crisis in 2020.

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Economy and work

As with many cities across Canada, Hamilton’s unemployment rate took a hit at the height of the first wave in April 2020 reaching 12.4 per cent from a pre-pandemic rate of 4.3 per cent.

Hamiltonians aged between 15 and 24 were the most affected by jobless numbers, with 33 per cent of women in the age group unemployed at the peak of the trend. About 28 per cent of men were impacted.

More women than men left the labour force in 2020 with participation rates dropping from 63.5 per cent pre-pandemic to 59.5 in September.

Read more: Federal data gives most detailed picture yet of where CERB went in Hamilton

Job numbers also showed that Indigenous people living off a reserve and those with racialized backgrounds had higher unemployment and lower rates of participation at certain points between August 2020 and January 2021 than non-Indigenous people.

Both groups were also found to be working in job sectors that experienced the bulk of job losses amid the pandemic.

A survey of 1,500 Hamilton-based businesses identified 8,000 job losses out of 54,000 positions year over year. Accommodations, food services as well as arts and recreation were the hardest hit.

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About 80 per cent of businesses lost revenue in 2020 with 25 per cent saying their earnings were cut in half.

Low income

Cooke said the study revealed the pandemic had a greater impact on Hamiltonians in the poorest 20 per cent of the population, affecting not only household economics but also their health.

High infection rates and reliance on theĀ Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) showed how much more vulnerable low-income residents, typically racialized and Indigenous people, are in the city.

“The folks that emerge from this thing in a weaker economic position tend to be people at the lower end of the spectrum who are in precarious work, who tend not to have paid sick leave,” Cooke said.

The poorest 20 per cent of Hamilton’s neighbourhoods had nearly double the number of COVID-19 cases (179 per 100,000 people) amid the pandemic compared to the richest 20 per cent (99 per 100,000).

Read more: Hamilton now third least affordable housing market in North America, according to study

Neighbourhoods that had the highest proportion of racialized residents had more than double the rates of COVID-19 compared to neighbourhoods that had lower percentages of racialized residents.

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Over 101,000 Hamiltonians received the CERB in the first month of the program in 2020. The numbers later levelled off to a monthly average of 57,000 receiving the $2,000 payment before the seventh and final month.


A sample of average home prices in Hamilton showed an increase of about 32 per cent, year over year, in March.

In 2021 a house cost about $804,000, up from $608,000 in 2020. The Realtors Association Of Hamilton-Burlington (RAHB) says increased demand, reduced supply, and low interest rates were factors in driving up prices.

Flamborough and Ancaster had the priciest homes while Hamilton Centre’s were more affordable.

The average monthly rent of a two-bedroom unit rose about five per cent as of October 2020 to $1,184 from $1,130 in October 2019. Rents for vacant two-bedroom units jumped even more, by 25 per cent, from an average of $1,639 in March 2020 to $2,057 in March 2021.


Hamilton police reported a year-over-year increase of 4.4 per cent in domestic abuse emergency calls in 2020. Cooke suggested the increase was tied to substandard accommodation” and “the pressures” of having to stay at home during lockdowns.

Read more: Hamilton Police report overall drop in crime during pandemic, but commercial break and enters soar

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“They’re feeling all kinds of pressure and domestic problems tend to compound themselves,” Cooke said.

“Clearly, there is an alarming escalation there that local social supports and the police have to be mindful of.”

Police also reported a 130 per cent increase in commercial break-ins compared to pre-pandemic levels. Seventeen homicides were recorded in 2020, the highest number in over 30 years.

A number of other police-reported crimes did drop during the province’s shut down measures between March and June of 2020.

Assaults dropped 28 per cent, impaired driving 22 per cent, auto theft 19 per cent and weapons offences were down 12 per cent.

Hamilton police say hate crimes fell by about 13.2 per cent in 2020 from just over 90 incidents to about 80 in 2020. Racial bias and religious bias were the most common causes of hate incidents. The Black community was targeted in 33 of 38 incidents.

Read more: Hamilton police record drop in hate incidents, advocate says report has ‘huge gaping hole’

In a survey, members in the LGBTQ2 communities say they generally feel safe in Hamilton’s public spaces with about 40 per cent feeling less safe in religious settings.

Transgender and racialized residents typically feel less safe than those who identify as non-transgender and non-racialized.

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Health and Well-Being

For the city’s physicians, the pandemic created a shift in how health care was delivered over the past year with doctors saying about 70 per cent of all visits now happen online. In Ontario, in-office visits between March and July of 2020 dropped 80 per cent compared to the same period in 2019.

Opioid-related deaths continued to rise in the city in 2020 with 113 deaths recorded. There were 105 deaths in all of 2019 and 123 in 2018. There were fewer than 40 between 2008 and 2016.

Cooke says “hyper focus” on coronavirus matters took attention away from ongoing opioid issues in Hamilton and “compounded the problem” with evidence that more people used drugs during the height of the pandemic.

Read more: Increased isolation, lack of structure during pandemic, likely causes of more youth in crisis

“It suggests to me that our commitments to harm reduction and safe injection sites is evidence that clearly demonstrates we will save lives and is a critical additional piece of work that we need to continue to build on,” Cooke said.

Arts and Culture

The hardest-hit job sectors in the pandemic were those tied to art, entertainment and recreation, as employment declined 48 per cent between January 2020 and December 2020.

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The survey discovered that year-over-year job losses were around 25 per cent, eclipsing the average from all industries amid the pandemic which was about five per cent between 2019 and 2020.

Job losses in performing arts totalled 41 per cent, and artists who kept their jobs worked 36 per cent fewer hours than in the prior year, according to the report.

The average annual income for artists was about $24,300 in 2020 with Indigenous, racialized and female artists typically earning less than men.

Read more: What you can do and when under Ontario’s new 3-phase COVID-19 reopening plan

There were just 43 events in Hamilton in 2020 compared to 447 in 2019.

Visits to art galleries dropped 82 per cent in 2020 while film was the least of the entertainment categories impacted by COVID-19 with a 34 per cent drop in permits issued and just a 10 per cent decrease in revenues made from productions.

The Vital Signs CEO suggests economic recovery of the arts and entertainment sector will be “long and difficult” and likely take years to return to “sustainable profitability” since COVID-19 measures on gatherings are expected to linger over the next year.

“Anybody that thinks that the aftermath of this thing, especially the economic recovery, is going to be back to normal and firing on all cylinders in six months to a year is probably severely underestimating the trajectory and the difficulty of the recovery,” Cooke said.


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