timeline of key events
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Keeping Six, in partnership with HAMSMaRT, have relentlessly and cooperatively engaged with City leadership, social service agencies, front line workers, and encampment residents themselves to not only challenge the established approach to dismantling encampments, but also work towards a public health and human rights-based strategy. Follow the timeline below for highlights of key events and efforts on this pressing matter.
- K6 and HAMSMaRT shift service provision from weekly drop-in to laugh thrice-weekly outreach sessions. This affords us the opportunity to connect directly with folks living rough.
- In response to the high volume of requests from people seen on outreach, K6 and HAMSMaRT begin collecting tents, tarps, and sleeping bags to distribute to folks sleeping rough. The announcement is made through our weekly newsletter.
- K6 is informed on outreach that residents at the long-standing encampment at Sir John A MacDonald School were given notice to move within a week.
- K6 requests that report back from outreach be a standing item on weekly homeless sector COVID-19 management meetings.
- HCLC/HAMSMaRT/K6 release a joint statement calling on City of Hamilton and Hamilton Police Service to immediately stop ticketing individuals who are homeless and living in the same shelter under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act (“EMCPA”), and City of Hamilton By-Law 20-056.
- HAMSMaRT and K6 join meeting convened around encampment management by the City of Hamilton.
- Mental Health and Street Outreach (MHSO) and Hamilton Police Service and Paramedic Social Navigator Program (SNP) have and continue to vigorously engage encampment residents in accessing shelter. Many access shelters and hotels; many were back at encampment within days, for various reasons.
- SJAM cleared without incident with support of MHSO and SNP. K6/HAMSMaRT supports encampment residents unable to access shelter, housing or hotel to move after the city fails to arrange transportation as agreed upon. Several residents move to Jackie Washington under advisement that the City could better support them on municipal property.
- Residents at Jackie Washington given eviction notice; City Homeless Sector staff intervene to extend deadline.
- Email from HAMSMaRT and K6 requesting to sit down with Jason Farr who responds he will speak to staff and get back to us.
- K6 and HAMSMaRT convene “house meeting” at Jackie Washington to better understand the needs of encampment residents and implications of being displaced. This info is conveyed to the city staff directly.
- K6 offers to send peers to York and Bay to engage in community maintenance of portopoties, which have been damaged. No response to K6 offer, which is conditional on some remuneration for peer work.
- Jackie Washington encampment residents cleared. People’s belongings are destroyed and people lost to health and social service support. Two people and their dogs housed before the park was cleared. One person moves two blocks away to Ferrie St encampment.
- Email to Jason Farr, in follow up to April 29 request for meeting; no response. Throughout the entire encampment debate, Jason Farr has never spoken directly to K6 or HAMSMaRT.
- City staff have repeatedly conveyed that they are unwilling and unable to change approach to clearing encampments to align with Public Health and Human Rights best practice. Legal team sends letter to City of Hamilton requesting negotiated solution, with the intention to litigate failing that. The letter also requests a meeting between parties within a week.
- Release of Love in the Time of COVID, K6 Arts Collective Zine focused on experience of being homeless during COVID.
- HAMSMaRT, K6, and legal team sit down with City Solicitor, General Manager of Healthy and Safe Communities and the Director of Housing Services for a productive conversation about solutions to encampments in Hamilton. Our team is encouraged to take our request for change in approach to encampments to council. Next opportunity will be the Emergency and Community Service meeting on July 13.
- In response to growing need, K6 launches Tent Drive.
- HAMSMaRT, K6, and legal team sit down with the City Solicitor, General Manager of Healthy and Safe Communities and the Director of Housing Services for a productive follow-up conversation about solutions to encampments in Hamilton.
- Follow up correspondence with City staff to better understand Encampment Task Force. One page description of task force received. No response to request for more fulsome publicly available documentation about the current approach to encampments and the current steps taken to assess the level of risk and determine the steps that might need to be taken described in the one-pager.
- Notice of imminent “clean up” of York and Bay encampment. City staff request the support of K6 on site to support. With less than a day’s notice, K6 and HAMSMaRT and other community organizations send support teams to help residents with larger items and the site is deemed clean enough by City and agency staff to have “heavy machinery” called off.
- Written delegations to Emergency and Community Services by Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, HAMSMaRT and Keeping Six. Councilor Nann moves that City encampment working group include an analysis of UN Rapporteur on the Right to Housing’s Human Rights-based approach: A National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada. The motion is carried with Councillor Whitehead voting against understanding a human rights-based approach. Councilor Clark moves that the City solicitor report back to the ECS on the implications of the legal precedent from BC.
- Second “clean up” of York and Bay encampment ordered. This time, K6 and HAMSMaRT and other community members were given less than an hour notice. Supporters sent and “clean up” successful.
- K6 convenes first front line encampment support service coordination meeting with several City and social service agencies and workers. This group has met weekly since then.
- Call from the Director of Housing Services notifying that encampments at York and Bay and Ferguson would be cleared on Friday, July 31. Director said every effort would be made to provide people with alternatives, but confirmed that those who could not be accommodated would be forced to move on.
- Notice of eviction walked back by City. After a flurry of correspondence between our legal team and the City’s, we are unable to obtain written assurances that City no one will be displaced against their will. Thus, a motion was filed to the courts requesting an injunction against the City of Hamilton, prohibiting the dismantling of encampments.
- Dozens of residents respond to the call from HAMSMaRT K6 and the HCLC to write to their councilors to request that residents not be moved.
- A temporary 10 day Injunction against the dismantlement is granted by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.
- K6 and HAMSMaRT release a public statement in response to misinformation being circulated about our position.
- Terry Whitehead says we should be investigated for our work on encampments.
- The Hamilton Spectator publishes an opinion piece by K6 and HAMSMaRT co-counsel, Wade Poziomka, responding to Council’s political spinning of encampments.
- The City does not challenge the extension of the injunction against dismantling encampments. It is extended until a court date can be set in September.
- Keeping Six does a survey of encampment residents on a model on City Camping that has been adopted in Victoria BC. Encampment residents generally receptive to that model.
- Councillor Terry Whitehead’s op-ed about encampments is published in The Hamilton Spectator.
- Maureen Wilson releases nuanced statement about encampments
- Two Hamilton social workers respond to Terry Whitehead’s op-ed.
- After a four hour in camera discussion, Council votes 9-3 in favour of challenging the injunction in court instead of a negotiated solution.
- HAMSMaRT and Keeping Six again reach out to City Council, staff and their legal team to request dialogue and negotiated solution that can better address the needs of the entire Hamilton community.
- A deal is reached
urgent request for duffle bags, totes, and suitcases
October 8, 2020
Dear K6 and HAMSMaRT friends and supporters,
It’s unlike us to send two email in one week, but we have an important and time sensitive request for you and your networks. We need duffle bags, Rubbermaid totes and suitcases to help people move.
You will likely have read that we reached an agreement with the City of Hamilton to lift the injunction and implement a protocol that recognizes that indoor options do not exist for everyone. We feel that this agreement is in the best interest of those that we work with, love and serve. However, the lifting of the injunction means that the City will dismantle the large encampments, especially those outside of the FirstOntario Centre and on Ferguson Avenue. We are committed to supporting people in moving in a way that causes the least harm possible. We have always been very engaged with folks at the encampments, and have stepped that up in the last week, to ensure that people understand what is happening, how they can best access indoor options and how the new protocol works. We are hearing from people that they need a way to move their possessions, whether they access an indoor space or have to move to another outdoor space, and that’s where you come in!
If you have new or gently used duffle bags, Rubbermaid totes, or suitcases, or small to medium sized carts, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to make arrangements for drop off. In your email, please include a photo of the item so we can ensure it meets the needs of people on the ground. Wheely options are much appreciated. The move dates for the larger encampments is by Wednesday of next week, so drop off this weekend will be a must. Please share widely and thank you, as always for your support.
September 30, 2020
Keeping Six, HAMSMaRT, and our co-applicants have reached an agreement with the City of Hamilton. We believe this is a better outcome for people in encampments than we likely would have reached in court. Details can be found in our joint statement with the City, and our communique to encampment residents.
response to events
July 30, 2020
We wanted to start by saying thank you to all of you who wrote letters, made phone calls, and reached out to support over that last 48 hours as we worked to stop people from being displaced from the FirstOntario Centre and Ferguson St encampments. The efforts of people to stand with those living in encampments and for a City where everyone has access to dignified housing is heartening.
We would like to clarify a few things:
We and others were clearly informed on Tuesday that there was a Friday deadline for people to accept offers of shelter, hotel, or housing or be moved on. This was walked back quite a bit after a flurry of exchanges between our team, the City staff, and our respective lawyers on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning. However, ultimately we were not able to obtain written assurance that no one would be removed against their will.
This lack of assurance and all of the experience we and others have had trying to support people in encampments, only to lose contact when people are displaced, put in motion legal proceedings that we have long been talking with the City about avoiding. To be clear, we are thrilled if people are offered shelter or housing options that suit their needs. We have and will continue to work with the city and agencies to support those transitions.
Our lack of confidence in the plans for Friday was bolstered by the extremely short notice that we and others were given about the July 31 “hopes to have people chose other options,” the lack of clarity about what options were being made available that, to date, had not enabled them to move out of encampments. In addition, we could not get the city to agree to give housing and outreach workers and our team more notice before another planned deadline.
We reiterate what Wade Poziomka has said about hiding behind by laws to justify moving people with nowhere else to go: “Laws and bylaws can sometimes lead to unfair results and cause harm. That is precisely why staff have discretion in enforcing these bylaws. To simply point to a bylaw and say it must be enforced, despite the harm, shows frightening lack of understanding of municipal governance”.
We have many times requested information about the Encampment Task Force and have only received a one and a half page “report” which essentially lists the membership of the task force and its “mandate” to engage people before moving them on.
We have throughout this very public debate about encampments maintained that we hope for people to be able to access shelter and housing that meets their needs. We have, contrary to Councillor Farr’s suggestion, been working closely with the city and other agencies to facilitate this. Keeping Six has provided peer support at the encampments in coordination with agencies most closely linked to them. HAMSMaRT and Keeping Six have shared supplies with city, agency and community based outreach teams. We have established an encampment support coordination group. In addition, K6 and HAMSMaRT have been at the table with city and agency staff weekly, working collectively to ensure that people living rough and in shelter are adequately protected during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We did not start with handing out tents and legal action against the city. We have been engaging with anyone and everyone ranging from the folks living in tents to the General Manager of Healthy and Safe Communities. We have delegated to the Emergency and Community Services Committee and clearly laid out our position, including why shelter is not an option for some. We have been completely transparent about our plans all along, informing City staff at each step of the way how we intended to act in the interests of the people that we support, and have always tried to diffuse instead of ramp up tensions.
All that we are saying, and all that we have ever said, is stop the inhumane practice of moving people on from encampments who have nowhere else to go. We are calling for time for outreach and housing workers to engage with people and support them to move when and where they will succeed. If that is working against the city, as Jason Farr is insinuating in his response to concerned constituents, then we hope that more people will see the need to join us in asking for a reconsideration of the City’s approach to encampments.
urgent call to action
Hamilton city staff have informed HAMSMaRT and Keeping Six of their plan to dismantle the encampments at the First Ontario Centre and the Ferguson Street encampment on July 31, 2020.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, both organizations partnered with the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic and with Wade Poziomka, a human rights lawyer at Ross & McBride and called on the city to stop dismantling encampments unless it was able to provide encampment residents with access to safe indoor spaces and interim to permanent housing with the appropriate supports.
This order to dismantle the encampments comes as a surprise to a coalition of social service and outreach workers, physicians, lawyers and community allies.
We need your help!
Please call or write to your councillor today asking that:
- The City not dismantle homeless encampments
- The City provide interim and permanent housing for encampment residents with necessary supports
- The City prioritize individuals experiencing homelessness for urgent housing placement
- The City engage encampment residents in assessing their needs prior to dismantling
- The City remove barriers in shelters and hotels in order to accommodate the individual needs of encampment residents
- The City allow for sanctioned encampment sites and/or designate specific parks/public lands where individuals are allowed to set up tents/temporary structures
- The City allow for a streamlined, low-barrier, accessible process of issuing permits allowing for tents and temporary structures
Dismantling homeless encampments will cause harm to encampment residents and this harm is heightened by the current pandemic. We need you to call on your local city councillor to take a holistic and reasoned approach to encampments. Please contact your councillor today!
In your emails, be sure to cc the following organizations:
The Hamilton Community Legal Clinic – email@example.com
Keeping Six – firstname.lastname@example.org
HAMSMaRT – email@example.com
our delegation to the emergency and community services committee
July 13, 2020
Dear Chair and Members of the Emergency and Community Services Committee:
Thank you for receiving our delegation. We are writing to you today on behalf of Keeping Six, Hamilton Harm Reduction Action League to request that the City re-evaluate and change its approach to encampments to better support the needs of those living in them and to facilitate service provision and access to housing. We believe that this can be accomplished in the following ways:
- that there be an explicit acknowledgement that the shelter system (including the pandemic hotels) do not meet the needs of many, and this is a significant contributing factor to the encampments in the city
- by including people with lived experience of living in encampments in the City led encampments working group and providing the supports necessary for participation
- that people living in encampments be prioritized for supportive housing
- that ultra-low barrier shelter option or options be created
- that in the absence of suitable housing or shelter, people be offered the option of sanctioned encampments in locations suitable to the City and the encampments’ inhabitants
- that, barring an alternative suitable to the people or person in question, a person’s housing not be dismantled, at least for the duration of the pandemic, as recommended by the Center for Disease Control.
Let us begin by saying that we appreciate that this is a difficult subject and that you face extra-ordinary pressure from the tax and voting base to “get rid” of this problem and restore access to perceived security and tranquil green space. We also acknowledge that the issue has been hurtled into the minds and emails of many because of the highly visible First Ontario Centre Encampment.
As a group comprised of people and supporters of people living or who have lived in such encampments, we need for you to understand that the problem for us is broader than FOC and more pressing than access to green space. Further, we are not the pariah that people want to make us out to be, and that the moral leadership of the city on this issue could go a long way toward shifting that narrative and building a more inclusive city.
A mainstay of our work as an organization led by people with lived experience is being connected to the people on the ground. A constant refrain from the streets is that people are exhausted and undermined by being in a perpetual state of dislocation. Always being moved along. It is next to impossible to make any progress in life while being consumed by sorting out where to be.
Another pillar of our work is to insist that the voices of people impacted by policy create that policy, or at least have a hand in it. Nothing about us, without us. This is of course about representation but also practicality; you would be surprised by how smart we are, how well we understand the issues and their nuance, and the ways in which we are able to propose realistic solutions and create buy in for them.
Another pillar of our work is to insist that the voices of people impacted by policy create that policy, or at least have a hand in it. Nothing about us, without us. This is of course about representation but also practicality; you would be surprised by how smart we are, how well we understand the issues and their nuance, and the ways in which we are able to propose realistic solutions and create buy in for them.
Our community has several times raised the idea of sanctioned sites, where we could establish some modicum of stability by doing away with the perpetual need to find a new place to live and acquire new belongings destroyed in the dismantlement. While it may not seem obvious at first glance, the stability and predictability of sanctioned or tacitly supported sites will decrease the problems associated with encampments, not increase them. Firstly, we will have an opportunity to create stable community and a sense of cohesion and ownership which fosters accountability to one another, our surroundings, and the community. Second, it facilitates access and continuity to services that might help us gain access to more stable housing (one of our number one goals), and health care. There is successful precedent for this in other cities in Canada and we would be happy to connect you to folks doing that work. K6 would also be first to engage people in such an encampment and would make it a priority for our existing outreach program.
Finally, a note to say, it gives us no great joy to come before you today and beg for people to be left to camp in the city. It is not what most of us want. But in the acknowledged absence of an alternative, with a run of systems failures that cross all levels of government, it is what we are left with.
The existing services for shelter in the city are valued and have hard working dedicated people in them and, we acknowledge, consume a great deal of resources. But we are all in agreement that the existing services do not meet some people’s needs. Some of us simply do not succeed in them. Teams of people worked extremely hard to humanely and respectfully clear people from the Sir John A encampment. On a Friday most if not all were in shelter or hotel. By Monday many were discharged and back on the street.
Now, we can discuss why that it is and disagree about where to “lay the blame” as it were, but the facts the ground remain that as it stands, it doesn’t work for some. We and many before us have long been in discussion about what could work. At every turn to every suggestion we hear: there are no resources for that, we have no funds, no staff. Excellent supportive programs like HOMES are oversubscribed and have long waitlists. The reality is that our current suite of Housing First services in Hamilton does not meet the housing needs of people who experience the most complex barriers to housing. The encampments we are talking about today are exacerbated by that gap in services.
This plea to not move encampments unless an acceptable alternative is available is an acceptance of that proposition, that the resources to solve this crisis don’t currently exist. Our preference is definitely for people to have access to suitable indoor living arrangements. But in the current climate, we know that this is not possible. In a time when everyone comes to the city asking for everything, we are asking for an end to the resource intensive perpetual make work project of moving people around from place to place, which only undermines any effort to “get rid of people”, because no matter what the complaining tax payers or voters want, moving us on does not make us evaporate. We need to be somewhere.
We appreciate that it is a complex subject that lends itself best to conversation and answering of questions. We have tried to anticipate some of your questions in the appendix and provide brief answers. We are happy to sit down at any time to discuss further how this shift in strategy could work.
Founding member of K6
Co-coordinator of K6
Frequently Asked Questions
What is an encampment?
There is no agreed upon definition of an encampment. To us, in this submission, it means a person or group of people sleeping outdoors in temporary shelter, like a tent or an impermanent structure fashioned out of any number of materials, like tarps, umbrellas, wood, etc.
Aren’t encampments dangerous to people living near them?
We do not have good evidence to answer this question. Without oversimplifying, our intuition and experience is that when people are treated with respect and kindness, they largely give the same in return. Certainly, reduced displacement is a gesture of respect and provides opportunity for building links across differences in communities. There is some evidence out of the US to show that broadly speaking, crime stays the same or goes down in neighborhoods around sanctioned or tacitly supported encampments. There have always been similar arguments leveled again the creation of sanctioned Consumption and Treatment Centres, and this fear of increased crime has not borne out in reality.
Don’t people just want to sleep rough?
This may occasionally be true, but this choice is the exception, not the rule. People who are truly choosing to sleep rough are few and far between, and they are not the subject of this submission.
What do we mean by a sanctioned site?
A sanctioned encampment is one where the City either explicitly or implicitly permits people to erect temporary shelter, offering the continuity and stability required to take some next steps in the journey toward housing. Beyond that, there could be on site hygiene facilities like toilets and handwashing stations. Services can be brought on site and more reliably connect with people. Food delivery by area agencies could take place. Regular garbage pickups could be organized. Resident led systems of governance and accountability could be fostered. There is some preliminary evidence out of the US that shows that this strategy could be successful in reducing homelessness.
Aren’t encampments dangerous to the people living in them?
Yes. Sleeping on the street is dangerous. There have been instances fires in some encampments. There have also been incidents of violence between people in encampments. This is part of the reason why we advocate first for safe, dignified housing for all. Until that is possible, however, people will sleep rough. This means that we must do our best to make rough sleeping safer. Moving people does not remove the potential for fire or violence. It simply displaces it and frankly aggravates it, by making people more on edge. Further, the stability of not moving encampments allows for us to make them safer by building community and supplying people with safety equipment.
hamsmart’s delegation to the emergency and community services committee
Delegation to Chair and Members of Emergency and Community Services Committee
July 13th, 2020
RE: Homeless Encampments
Thank you for accepting my delegation today. And thank you for all of your work throughout these unprecedented times.
Since the start of the pandemic, Hamilton has seen an increasing number of people experiencing homelessness who are choosing to sleep outside or “sleep rough”. This is certainly not a new phenomenon and there are many reasons that people avoid the shelter system. Some people find the rules too restrictive at shelters (there are curfews and bed checks in place). Others lament all the theft that occurs and simply don’t feel secure sleeping in a dorm style setting. Still others have pets that are not welcome in shelters and when people have so few supports in their lives, sometimes their pets take precedence above all else. As you know, people who are homeless suffer from a disproportionately high level of mental health issues and we often see people who are simply too anxious or too paranoid to be in close contact with so many people. Other people want to avoid the drug use that is often rampant in shelters. And on the flip side of that there are people who use drugs who are repeatedly evicted from shelters due to their drug use. Many times people are asked to leave shelters just because they have drug use paraphernalia on them. Peoples belongings are routinely searched and a clean needle or an unopened can of beer is enough to be restricted from a shelter. Lastly, there are very few shelter beds open for couples so different-sex couples are either forced to go to different shelters or opt to sleep outside so that they can stay together.
These are all reasons that people choose to sleep rough. Then you add a pandemic on top of that and hearing the repeated message that people living in congregate sleeping settings are at highest risk can be an added worry for people.
I have been working with many people who are sleeping rough during this pandemic. From a health perspective, I see how unwell these individuals often are. I have seen people with severe life-threatening infections, people who have untreated spinal cord issues that put them at risk of becoming paraplegic, women who are in their last few weeks of pregnancy, and so many folks who have addictions that they are desperate to get help with but lack the stability in their lives to make that possible. Imagine trying to get to a pharmacy every day for a dose of methadone when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you have to somehow protect your belongings from theft, find a place to charge a cell phone so that you won’t miss a call from your housing worker and acquire water for your dogs. Never mind finding a place to simply relieve yourself in the morning.
I know that in the past the City has felt they had to dismantle homeless encampments in response to complaints from residents. We saw that at Sir John A McDonald, Jackie Washington Park and Ferrie Street not long ago. When this happens the connections that were made with people are lost. The outreach workers who have been working on housing applications, the health care workers who have been working on the physical and mental health piece – these connections are all lost when people are told to move along. I was working with an elderly gentleman with a fever and pneumonia who could not do much more than lay on the floor of his tent but refused to go to hospital. With minimal notice he was told to move along and I have not seen him since.
The city has slowed down on dismantling homeless encampments in recent weeks and I am grateful for that, as are my patients. I am asking that this continue to be the overarching principle in dealing with homeless encampments: let them be. This pandemic is unprecedented. We can’t expect that responses that might have seemed reasonable in the past are appropriate during a pandemic. People do not cease to exist when they are told to move along. They still need a place to be and by virtue of sleeping rough they have shown that they do not fit into the current shelter system as it is. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) has issued guidelines stating that “Unless individual housing units are available, do not clear encampments during community spread of COVID-19. Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
We are imploring you to recognize the severe health consequences facing people who do not have housing, to recognize that we are in a new era where the old rules are not necessarily the best ones and to refrain from moving encampments along whenever possible. From our perspective, it would only be acceptable to move people along when they are either being moved to housing units with appropriate supports or to an ultra low-barrier, highly supportive shelter model that will give them a chance of success. Moving people into one of the current shelters or hotels to have them evicted two days later only further decreases the trust that people have in the system, making them less likely to engage in the future.
We need to recognize that the current shelter system does not meet the needs of many of these individuals. I ask that, in the re-imagining of our city’s response to homelessness that the pandemic has instigated, we make this group of high-needs individuals who sleep rough a priority. Currently, we see many of these folks being service restricted from all of the shelters in the city and turned down from city-run hotels due to the fact that their needs are too high. In the healthcare world, that is like saying that you are too sick so we are not going to offer you any care. Instead of turning our backs on them and continually telling them to move somewhere else so that they won’t be seen, we need to find something that WILL work for them. What about a motel space that is as low-barrier as possible with intensive social and health supports? Other jurisdictions in Canada have done this with great success. The city has recently made a precedent of helping two people get directly from a homeless encampment into permanent housing. This was successful and there is no reason that it would not work for other folks as well. What this group needs are options and at this point viable options for them do not exist.
I understand that the focus for you right now is likely the encampment outside of First Ontario Centre. But our concerns about this issue predate that encampment. Part of the reason the FOC encampment developed was due to smaller encampments in the city being dismantled – groups of two or three tents at the back of a park that were told to move along, or a single tent along the rail trail somewhere. Another group of people outside FOC are people who have been service restricted from all of the shelters in the city. And other people sleeping outside of FOC have been illegally evicted from their residential care facilities (RCF’s). The encampment developed in that particular spot likely because of the neighbouring shelters that offered community to people as well as the fact that amenities existed in that area. Toilets and meals have not been as easy to come by during the pandemic and people will go to areas where services exist.
So please, stop dismantling homeless encampments for the duration of the pandemic unless people are being moved to an indoor space where they will have a modicum of success. This is not only a matter of public health and best practise as per the Centre for Disease Control, it is also a matter of human dignity and human rights. We need to recognize that the current system does not work for many people who are sleeping rough and work to either get them directly into permanent housing with appropriate supports or accommodate them in a shelter/motel that is low-barrier and high-support enough to meet their needs. Barring that, our city needs to be following an evidence-based approach to this issue, follow the international health guidelines that are available to us and stop dismantling homeless encampments.
Dr Jill Wiwcharuk and Dr Tim O’Shea
Hamilton Social Medicine Response Team (HAMSMaRT)
hclc’s delegation to the emergency and community services committee
July 10, 2020
TO: Chair And Members of the Emergency and Community Services Committee
Re: Dismantlement of Homeless Encampments
Thank you for approving our written delegation. We submit this delegation on behalf of the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic and we have further partnered with Wade Poziomka, a partner with Ross & McBride, to highlight concerns relating to the dismantlement of homeless encampments.
The Hamilton Community Legal Clinic has worked with HAMSMaRT and Keeping Six with respect to the ticketing of individuals experiencing homelessness for offences under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act (“EMCPA”) and related by-laws.
We appreciate that homeless encampments present unique challenges for the City, and that the City is required to respond to resident complaints with respect to same. In the midst of gaining compliance with EMCPA, the Trespass to Property Act, and local by-laws regarding the usage of park or public spaces, it is imperative to ensure that vulnerable groups, especially those who are experiencing homelessness, are not being penalized because of their socio-economic circumstances and/or disabilities, including mental health disabilities.
Throughout the duration of the pandemic, HAMSMaRT and Keeping Six have repeatedly implored the City to either not remove individuals from encampments, or to ensure that they are transitioned to stable housing. They have cited the CDC Guidelines, Interim Guidance on Unsheltered Homelessness and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) for Homeless Service Providers and Local Officials, (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/homeless-shelters/unsheltered-homelessness.html), which recommend that people not be moved from encampments “unless individual housing units are available” (Emphasis Added). Without going into detail, the Guidelines further explain the personal and public health risks involved in displacing people during the pandemic.
We agree that there are significant health-related reasons not to remove individuals experiencing homelessness from their encampments. We further submit that there are significant legal reasons to refrain from this conduct. The issue of homeless encampments, specifically during COVID-19, is not unique to Hamilton. Other municipalities have had to grapple with how to respond to public concerns while protecting private and public health interests. In Toronto, a coalition of legal clinics and advocates for individuals experiencing homelessness recently filed a lawsuit against the City which alleged, amongst other things, that the City failed to provide physical distancing standards across the shelter system. The litigation alleged that, by failing to ensure physical distancing within the shelter system, the City had infringed on the shelter residents’ life, liberty, and security of the person, and their right to equal treatment (guaranteed under sections 7 and 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms respectively).
The City of Toronto entered into an Interim Settlement Agreement and committed to numerous enforceable commitments relating to conditions in all shelter, respites, drop-ins and COVID-19 homelessness response hotel rooms operated or funded by the City. As of this week, the same coalition is taking the City back to court for failure to comply with the settlement terms. It is important to note that the declined capacity of the shelter system and failure to provide alternatives to congregate shelter has led hundreds of people to remain in encampments and to continue sleeping rough.
There is also precedent for jurisdictions moving in the right direction. In London, the City made the decision to allow temporary encampments and individual tents on municipal property for the duration of the pandemic with the ultimate goal of getting people housed. On July 7, Kingston City Council voted to extend by-law exemptions allowing an encampment to remain until at least July 31.
In British Columbia, the issue of dismantling homeless encampments as a Charter issue was specifically dealt with in two cases. In Victoria (City) v. Adams, 2009 BCCA 563 and Abbotsford (City) v. Shantz, 2016 BCSC 2437, the application of parks and streets bylaws prohibiting erecting a shelter was challenged primarily under section 7 of the Charter. The Courts found that, insofar as the by-laws prevented people from erecting temporary shelter for protection from the elements, this was a violation of their section 7 rights, and consequently of no force and effect. From our perspective, the right to erect temporary shelter for protection from the real and legitimate risk presented by COVID-19, when no other viable options for some individuals, presents a parallel fact pattern.
Housing is a basic human right. The right to adequate, safe housing, is further heightened during the era of COVID-19. Dismantling homeless encampments, in light of the significant risks to the individuals who are forced to move, infringes on their right to life, liberty, and security of the person. Given that many of the affected individuals are racialized, and/or have mental health, addiction and physical disabilities, these groups are also disproportionately impacted by displacement.
The City has a legal duty to accommodate individuals staying in encampments pursuant to its obligations under the Human Rights Code (the “Code”). As you know, there are many reasons why individuals “sleep rough” in encampments. Some of those reasons are unique to COVID-19 (a legitimate fear of exposure while in shelter). Other reasons for residing in encampments are directly related to Code-protected grounds. For example:
Some individuals have mental health challenges that effectively preclude them from functioning in a shelter setting;
- Some individuals have drug or alcohol dependencies (addictions), and are ejected from shelters as a result of use (a symptom of their disability);
- Some individuals are unable to give up an animal, often the only companion they have and a necessity for emotional regulation, because some shelters do not permit animals, and
- Some individuals are married or in common law relationships, and most shelters do not accommodate couples.
The list of reasons why people may occupy encampments is extensive – what is clear is that those reasons are frequently related to Code-protected grounds. The fractures that exist in the shelter systems during the best of times are highlighted and exacerbated during the pandemic we are all experiencing. Rather than engage in knee-jerk reactions that results in dismantlement, it is imperative the City to work with social service organizations, local communities and experts to fully understand the situation and take steps to correct the problems with the system. The City needs to look at this situation holistically, instead of in a piecemeal fashion primarily focused on the rights of property owners and an unrealistic assessment of the threat posed by encampments.
It is essential that the City follow the principles set out in the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s “Policy Statement on a Human-Rights Approach to Managing the COVID-19 Pandemic” to ensure that everyone’s human rights are protected. Without these considerations, low income, racialized, Black, and First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, persons with physical and mental health disabilities, youth, and the 2S & LGBTQQAI+ communities may be disproportionately impacted in the course of enforcement.
It is also essential that the City follow the principles developed by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing in “A National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada: A Human Rights Approach” calling for a rights-based response to encampments. Such a response requires that:
- All government action with respect to homeless encampments upholds the human rights and human dignity of their residents;
- Governments will not resort to criminalization, penalization or obstruction of homeless encampments;
- Governments must explore all viable alternatives to eviction and may not remove residents from encampments without identifying alternative places to live that are acceptable to them;
- Governments provide adequate alternative housing to all residents prior to any eviction.
- Residents will meaningfully participate in all decision-making processes that directly affect them and engage in any decisions regarding relocation;
- Relocation must not result in the continuation or exacerbation of homelessness, or require the fracturing of families or partnerships.
There have been several incidents of the City dismantling homeless encampments during the pandemic: from small groups or individuals along railways, to Sir John A. MacDonald, Jackie Washington and Ferrie St. While efforts were made to connect displaced individuals with supports, those efforts fell short of meeting actual needs. Several of the individuals placed in hotels or shelters were discharged shortly after for being unable (by virtue of disability) to conform to shelter and hotel rules. Others simply moved on, and have lost contact with the crucial medical and social supports previously accessed.
We acknowledge, and are thankful that the City has refrained from further dismantling in recent weeks. We also understand that there is an expiration date on current encampments, and that the City is facing considerable pressure from residents to move people along. The difficulty is that the City does not have a viable plan for many of those individuals. We therefore call on the City to immediately change its policy on homeless encampments as follows:
- The City will not dismantle homeless encampments and/or displace of its residents unless it has first arranged for and/or secured inside spaces such as shelters, hotels, interim housing and/or individual housing units in stable, secure housing with appropriate supports. We encourage the City to prioritize individuals experiencing homelessness for urgent housing placement. In the context of shelter and hotel placements, the City must consult with stakeholders in the homelessness/shelter community to determine what supports are needed, how to remove barriers from hotel stays, and how existing shelter rules may need to be changed in order to accommodate individual needs.
- Where inside spaces are not available, the City will not dismantle homeless encampments and/or displace of its residents. Such objective can be accomplished by one of the following initiatives:
- The designation of specific parks/public lands wherein individuals experiencing homelessness are allowed to set up tents/temporary structures. The City should consult with stakeholders prior to the designation to ensure that the sites are appropriately accessible for individuals and their support network;
- In the alternative, a streamlined, low-barrier, accessible process of issuing permits allowing for tents/temporary structures;
- Where encampments are located on private property, refraining from any enforcement measures save and except where property owners have made complaints. Any individuals removed would then be directed to a viable alternative as set out in subparagraphs a. and b. above.
We acknowledge the complexity of homeless encampments and appreciate the fact that encampments are not a solution to homelessness. However, we submit that it is critical that the City not dismantle homeless encampments until it can provide encampment residents with adequate housing with appropriate supports. Failure to do this will result in a violation of the basic human rights and dignity of all encampment residents in the City of Hamilton.
Hamilton Community Legal Clinic
Hamilton Community Legal Clinic
Ross & McBride