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Encampments and Institutional Responsibility: A Letter to Ward 1 Residents

Dear residents of Ward 1

In a previous letter to Ward 1 residents, I set out my position on the City’s abrupt decision to end the encampment protocol: The protocol was an agreement arrived at by the City of Hamilton and various health, housing and justice agencies to guide the municipality’s response to encampments. It was a housing-first approach. It set a time limit of fourteen days for tents to be in a City park and placed a cap on the number of tents permitted in any one place. It assessed the mental acuity of encamped persons. It also prohibited encampments in certain places such as near schools. I regret that City staff were not able to meet with their protocol partners to negotiate any amendments considered necessary before being instructed to terminate the agreement. As a result of Council’s decision, the Hamilton Police Service has been formally inserted into the City’s response to homelessness.   

Homelessness is a complex issue. It can be the most visible sign of extreme poverty. But, it’s more than just the absence of shelter. The building blocks of poverty – childhood trauma, material deprivation, often racism, sexual violence, health and social inequities – fuse together over time, often resulting in homelessness. Chronic homelessness can worsen these conditions and expose people to greater risk. We don’t expect cancer to be treated and cured at the emergency ward. Yet, somehow, we think securing a temporary bed will be the prescription for wellness when so many other supports are needed to address these conditions. Even when housing is secured, it is not atypical for homelessness to reoccur. Housing must be coupled with supports.

We don’t have space for everyone in need because of the range of their needs. The City’s housing services team reports that there are approximately 140 people in Hamilton for whom there is no appropriate shelter, either temporarily or otherwise, because of the complexity of their needs. In the clearing of encampments, the most vulnerable are forced to move around the City or retreat to the woods, their tents and most material goods discarded by authorities. This practice frustrates the ability of specially trained and dedicated health care workers to deliver some continuity of care. It is an exhausting and inhumane existence and exacerbates acute health conditions for 140 residents we know have nowhere else to go. It does nothing to solve homelessness and exacts more significant harm. 

A group of younger Hamiltonians, many of them racialised, have been working hard to bring supports to unhoused residents in the form of food and clothing. Many of these same volunteers also brought aid to 10,000 Hamilton families cut off from supports during the early days of COVID-19 to build a community of care. Others helped organise COVID-19 vaccine clinics. Some have delegated to Hamilton City Council calling for an end to the City’s forcible removal of encampments; others have called for additional funding for affordable housing. They aim to act in solidarity with unhoused residents and advocate for a more just community.  

Spurred by tragic, often violent events, a broader awareness of racial injustice has developed in the last few years. Indigenous, Black and Racialized people having to function within unjust systems are calling for change. Dr King taught us that all justice is interconnected - meaning, you can’t compartmentalise justice by focusing on racial injustice, then health injustice, and then move on to housing injustice. Justice is affected by and experienced in all these forms at once. The quest for justice is to secure justice in all forms, in all places at all times, and for all people. Perhaps this is why young Indigenous, Black, and Racialized leaders have been active in drawing attention to our housing and health crises. I am grateful for their advocacy and the care and resources they have offered unhoused and housed Hamilton residents during this pandemic.

Two weeks ago, there was an altercation between the Hamilton Police Service (HPS), housing advocates and volunteers. Many of whom were racialised youth.

I was not present at J.C. Beemer Park when the encampment was cleared following a November 24th early morning fire. Nor was I present at the downtown Hamilton Police Station two days later when a protest was held, and additional arrests were made.

In the case of J.C. Beemer Park, the encamped residents served with eviction after an early morning fire of November 24th asked the volunteers for help in packing; others asked for support in their efforts to stay in the park. The initial altercation took place when advocates and volunteers responded to the request. Photos from the event are troubling. In particular, the photograph of an HPS officer with his knee on the neck of a Black female is deeply disturbing to me, so too is a racialised person getting dragged along the ground by an HPS officer.   

The video footage of a violent altercation brought on police on those attending the downtown rally the following Friday in support of those arrested at J.C. Beemer and then at Beasley Park is also deeply troubling.  

Both incidents have left me with questions about the dismantling of encampments, the role of police, the appropriate use of force and the practice of de-escalation at protests.

In both cases, it is unclear what public safety risk was posed by protesters and volunteers and what would warrant the level of force exercised by the police service and the subsequent criminal charges.  

Black organisations and leaders came together this week to call for the criminal charges against the youth to be dropped as a first step in rebuilding trust between the Hamilton Police Service and communities of colour. A week before these incidents, Hamilton’s Police Chief convened a meeting with select members of the Black community on November 23rd to discuss ways and means to rebuild trust. In so doing, the Police Chief was acknowledging either the absence of trust or the need for improvement. Statistics confirm that police services are more likely to arrest and use force against Black residents compared to non-Black residents:

From the original altercation until now, I have been trying to put the pieces together to understand where the breakdown occurred and what my role as a councillor is under the circumstances. Several Ward 1 residents have written to me seeking my position on this matter.  To date, I have read articles, looked at videos and photos, and listened to first-hand accounts of each incident from those arrested and those who witnessed the arrests. I recognise I do not have all the pieces. There is always more to learn. Regardless, I have concluded that action is required by those representing the institutions in which we as citizens have traditionally placed our trust.

Police services derive their authority and legitimacy from the collective consent of the policed, which is a by-product of trust.  The absence of trust is a serious matter.  What steps will the Hamilton Police Services Board and the Chief of Police take to address trust?

The Hamilton Police Services Board must ask these same questions about the use of force and the events that transpired and ensure an informed, impartial and fair deliberation – one that will uphold the public interest and public trust.

It is paramount that the Chief of Police publicly address how the Service responded to these encampment advocates and the protestors at Central Station. Specifically, the excessive force used; the use of force levelled at all, most of them racialised; and the threat he believes they posed to public safety and why it warrants criminal charges. If he is unwilling or unable to do this, then the public is right to question the legitimacy of the charges.    

Elected officials and citizens both share the obligation to ask questions, however difficult, as part of our commitment to justice, to each other, and to our efforts to make our City better for more people.  To this end, I am writing to the Hamilton Police Services Board with my questions and a call for an independent public inquiry.

The forced eviction of homeless individuals for whom there are no appropriate forms of shelter must end until the City can secure supportive housing options.  The criminalisation of homelessness and the people trying to help the homeless does not solve homelessness.

And winter is here. The crisis facing our most vulnerable and marginalised residents is deepening. We need an all community, all sector, all government coordinated commitment to address this crisis with the urgency it demands and a level of care and support all human beings deserve.  Let that be our shared call to action.