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The Hamilton Spectator - 2021-10-14

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City faces encampment court challenge

FRONT PAGE

TEVIAH MORO

The city is fighting a human rightsbased court challenge that aims to prevent it from forcing people from encampments in Hamilton. The effort led by the local community legal clinic on behalf of five people who are homeless and live outside comes amid a shortage of suitable shelter and housing options, officials said Wednesday. “Do we have enough spots for all the people that are homeless?” Coun. Brad Clark asked city staff. No, replied housing director Edward John, who noted there are roughly 150 people who live at encampments in Hamilton at different times. “We are looking for additional capacity for the winter months.” That’s concerning, responded Clark, likening the legal squabbles over encampments to putting the “cart before the horse” with cooler weather around the corner. “So if we wiped out all of the encampments right now, where would they go? We don’t have the beds for them.” Efforts spent in court are “not helping” the city create spaces to keep people from freezing to death, Clark added. Those who work directly with people experiencing homelessness have long flagged a chronic shortage of beds in the women’s shelter system. Doctors and outreach workers who care for people who live in tents have also pointed to how shelters are not viable options for those with mental-health and addiction challenges. Some opt for encampments to stay away from drug use and violence in shelters, while couples who want to stick together also sleep rough. Others still fear contracting COVID-19 in the congregate settings. The judge presiding over the court challenge that was launched last week told the city to stop forcing encampment residents to move until Friday, when the case is scheduled to resume, Stephanie Cox, a lawyer with the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, said via email. The short pause on the enforcement of bylaws deals with encampments in parks that are 50 metres away from a school, playground or child-care centre, and in clusters of no more than six tents, Cox noted. Deputy city solicitor Ron Sabo told councillors it’s “quite likely” the judge won’t deliver a decision on the application for a permanent injunction Friday, which means the interim conditions could persist for a time. The legal scuffle comes after the council abruptly voted Aug. 9 to scrap a protocol with partners in the homelessness sector that emphasized finding people places to live before forcing them from city parks. That agreement made provisions for people’s acuity, including mental-health and addiction issues, and allowed tents to remain for 14-day stretches. “It just didn’t work,” Coun. Jason Farr said Wednesday, “and we can’t be the only city to allow this to fester and grow.” Farr has steadfastly aired his frustration over the growing number of encampments in his downtown ward, citing constituents’ complaints over fires, violence, garbage and drug use. “Because we’re the only game in town,” he said, contending “in my opinion,” homeless people from other cities have flocked to Hamilton due to its lack of bylaw enforcement. Nonetheless, Farr said the city’s outreach and housing staff are “very good at what we do,” while insisting “there are way more options than no options for people sleeping so inhumanely.” Yes, John replied, but specified “appropriate options” — including those matched with health services — may not be available during a pandemic that has further complicated efforts to get people indoors. Between January 2020 and July 2021, 440 people on the city’s byname priority list — a database of more than 990 people who are homeless — were housed, the city says. Specific to encampments, 73 of 477 people the city’s outreach program has interacted with since the start of the pandemic have been housed through support programs. That doesn’t include people who found housing themselves or through other programs, a city spokesperson noted. The current court challenge echoes one in the summer of 2020 that involved an enforcement injunction and led to the now-scrapped protocol, which had been in place since the fall of that year. At the time, the coalition of doctors, street outreach workers and lawyers, including legal clinic staff, contended dispersing people from encampments made it more difficult to offer them medical care and other crucial services. The new application argues bylaws that deal with tents infringe on homeless people’s rights to “life, liberty and security of the person by preventing them from engaging in essential life-sustaining activities in public space and from creating shelter for themselves, when they have no other viable alternative.” Sharon Crowe, a lawyer with the legal clinic, told The Spectator council’s decision to revoke the protocol and encampment clearings “of great concern” in September sparked the latest court application. On Wednesday, Farr said a majority of council — but not councillors Nrinder Nann, Maureen Wilson and JohnPaul Danko — voted to rescind the protocol and “defend our bylaws, and in return, obviously, we’re defending our taxpayers.” In response, Nann urged council to “get to the root” of what’s fuelling the homelessness crisis “instead of continuing to seek division in this community and in this council.” Nann expressed optimism for a soon-to-be-announced initiative with a community partner to help fill gaps in the women’s system. But for too long, she said, the shortage of beds in that sector, including overflow programs, has left women fleeing violence with no “safe place to go.” After council ended the protocol, the city moved to a six-step process that designates bylaw officers as the “first point of contact” after complaints, instead of housing outreach workers. But it still calls for outreach efforts, including those of the Social Navigator, a partnership between police and paramedics, to help arrange for housing or shelter. Kelly Barnett, a manager in the city’s bylaw division, said staff know about 30 to 40 encampments in Hamilton. There have been “some successes” with people at smaller encampments leaving voluntarily, but they move to another spot or return to the same one. “That’s been one of our challenges.” Since Aug. 30, when the city resumed its pre-pandemic enforcement, people at six sites left without the need for enforcement, 10 sites have been issued verbal notice to clear out and four have been issued trespass notices.

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