One of the most prominent voices to lead Hamilton through the COVID-19 pandemic will soon be leaving the city for a new job in Toronto.
Paul Johnson, director of the city’s emergency operations centre and general manager of Hamilton’s healthy & safe communities department, has taken a position as the deputy city manager of community and social services for the city of Toronto.
Johnson, who was named as the 2021 Citizen of the Year alongside Hamilton’s medical officer of health, said the new opportunity in Toronto is a “tremendously exciting one” that allows him to continue doing some of the work in social services and housing he’s been doing locally – as well as expand to areas like economic development, culture, and parks and forestry.
“So an opportunity really to get involved in all of those elements that make communities really great places to be in the largest city in Canada,” Johnson told Global News.
“That kind of opportunity does not come along often and for me, it was just the perfect one to take.”
He has appeared with Dr. Richardson and Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger on a regular basis during the city’s COVID-19 updates.
Johnson said the past 16 months of heading up the emergency operations centre has been “an incredibly tough grind” but added that it’s good to see Hamilton is in a much more optimistic position now.
“The crisis isn’t over, and I know that I step away with still so much work to be done in the pandemic,” he said.
“But the great thing is, is as much as Dr. Richardson and myself and the mayor have been the public faces of communicating this pandemic to Hamiltonians, the team that works around us is large and very dedicated and talented. So the work will continue and new voices will emerge.”
One challenge that cropped up over the course of the pandemic was the issue of encampments becoming more visible throughout Hamilton, as well as other major cities in Canada like Toronto.
Last year, the city was met with a Superior Court injunction over its efforts to clear homeless encampments from the downtown core, and the lack of affordable housing and encampments became a prominent topic of conversation when demonstrators camped out for a week in front of Hamilton city hall.
It’s also a hot topic in Toronto, with advocates for homeless residents calling on the city to end the forcible removal of encampments, with public outcry after that occurred at Trinity Bellwoods Park in recent weeks.
Johnson, who worked with Wesley Urban Ministries prior to working for the city of Hamilton, acknowledged that the conversation about housing and homelessness will be the same in Toronto as it has been in Hamilton.
“It really is going to be about encouraging a new type of partnership with community organizations, with funding from the provincial and federal levels to say, how do we not only build the capital side of more housing — which is sometimes a little easier — but also make sure that we have those day to day ongoing operational investments for support.”
In a statement to the media, a city spokesperson said senior staff are working on a transition plan and next steps.
“Mr. Johnson has helped the City increase affordable childcare options, reduce the affordable housing waitlist, and develop the Neighbourhood Action Strategy and the Urban Indigenous Strategy,” wrote spokesperson Jen Recine in an email.
Johnson was also previously director of the LRT project coordination office, director of neighbourhood and community initiatives, and director of corporate initiatives.
His last day working with the city of Hamilton will be Sept. 3.