There have been encampments across the lower City of Hamilton for years.
Before COVID-19, most if not all the encampments in Ward 1 were hidden from public view – in ravines, under highway overpasses or adjacent to railway lands.
The growth of encampments caused the City of Hamilton to adopt a protocol of response in 2018. Once identified, a team of public health and housing services workers from the City of Hamilton make contact with those living rough to begin the process of determining the health, housing, and social needs of encampment residents. When accommodation and supports were in place, the encampment was cleared and cleaned.
COVID-19 and Encampments
Since COVID-19, encampments have become more publicly visible. This visibility may be due to several factors. The City's affordable housing crisis has worsened, and COVID-19 has compounded pre-existing unsafe conditions of residents precariously housed and those without access to any housing, clean water and sanitation.
Tents in Public
Many of you may have seen tents in our downtown. Some of you saw a tent earlier this summer in Strathcona's Victoria Park. For some, the tent provoked feelings of unease and fear, others were angry, and some were asking how they could help. Each of these reactions is understandable.
You may have heard news of a legal injunction brought against the City of Hamilton to prevent the removal of encampments from public property. Presently, the City's by-law does not permit overnight stays on city property. A Superior Court judge has granted the injunction for a period of time. While the order is in place, the City staff continue to engage with residents living in tents and all forms of encampments to secure housing options, albeit many of them temporary.
I have been contacted by many Ward 1 residents asking me to account for my position on the City's approach to encampments. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the specifics of an active legal proceeding that is before the courts; however, it is my responsibility to address the issue of homelessness in Hamilton, particularly during the pandemic.
I continue to support the City's efforts to find housing for any resident who is without shelter and in need of supports, and I continue to advocate for affordable housing and supportive housing as priorities for public investment from all levels of government. I continue to believe that the City of Hamilton must work with community agencies and the private sector to look for ways to add affordable and supportive housing inventory.
Homelessness – More than Just Housing
There is more to homelessness than just housing. For some, being homeless is a one-time crisis. For others, it is a chronic condition. (1) In all cases, health and well-being are central.
Some of the people experiencing homelessness have complex needs, and the pathway to becoming homeless was not a direct route: mental illness; educational interruptions; substance abuse; severe childhood trauma; family breakdown; economic and labour market disruption; rising housing costs with the financialization of housing are all at play.
To be sure, women, girls and gender diverse persons face specific dangers when homeless, and discrimination when trying to secure housing. These barriers are, in particular, the case for Indigenous women, Black women, women of colour, LGBTQ2S+ people, and newcomer women. (2)
The number of homeless people in Canada is close to 200,000 at an estimated cost of $7 billion. (3) Since the Province's declaration of a public health emergency due to COVID-19, the City of Hamilton is on track to spend more than $15 million since March on homelessness services --- without the construction of a single affordable housing unit. Poverty is expensive. Alternatives, less so.
Housing as a Human Right
Canada is a signatory to multiple international human rights treaties that identify housing as a human right. Canada's National Housing Strategy (2019) also recognizes the right to adequate housing.
Thanks to a motion by Ward 3 Councillor Nann, a forthcoming autumn report on the status of Hamilton's encampment policy will include an analysis the UN Special Rapporteur's call for a National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada. (4) I voted in support of this motion at Council. The protocol sets out eight principles aimed at guiding governments, agencies and residents in responding to encampments.
- Recognize residents of homeless encampments as rights holders
- Meaningful engagement and effective participation of homeless encampment residents
- Prohibit forced evictions of homes encampments
- Explore all viable alternatives to eviction
- Ensure that relocation is human rights compliant
- Ensure encampments meet basic needs of residents consistent with human rights
- Ensure human rights-based goals and outcomes, and the preservation of dignity for homeless encampment residents
- Respect, protect and fulfill the distinct rights of Indigenous Peoples in all engagements with homeless encampments
The City of Hamilton will continue in its efforts to adequately accommodate people living in encampments who have unmet housing and support needs. I am learning that for some, shelters present an unsafe option. Continued engagement with those remaining in encampments, as per the City's existing practice, is critical to ensure that health officials can attend to their needs, monitor and test for COVID-19 and prevent community outbreaks.
The conditions of COVID-19 have stretched the City of Hamilton's resources on every single front, including the work with people living in encampments. More people are in crisis. And given the economic impact of COVID-19, there are reports that a growing number of people are worried about the stability of their own housing status.
The social and public health resources needed to support Hamilton residents during COVID-19 has meant there are fewer resources available to work with residents living in tents. That is why last month I voted in favour of investing additional monies to provide for more temporary public health staff resources during this pandemic.
Concentrated Poverty – Concentrated Encampments
During this pandemic, it has become commonplace to say that we are all in this together. But we know that some neighbourhoods remain largely unaffected by visible encampments. We need to talk about why, and what decisions have contributed to concentrated poverty and unequal housing opportunities within and across Hamilton.
The continued segregation of our City by income and housing type does not make for a fair, inclusive or healthy city. Every neighbourhood must take advantage of the opportunity to include affordable housing and mixed housing types in its development plans.
Affordable Housing Discussion Paper
During the 2018 municipal election campaign, I released a discussion paper on affordable housing.
Federal & Provincial Governments Investments
We need the federal and provincial governments to come to the table and make investments in affordable and supportive housing a priority. The magnitude of need is so great that no municipality can build the required amount of stock nor fully finance the kind of wrap-around supports needed by an increasing population.
Ontario is the only Province in Canada that has downloaded the funding and administration of affordable housing onto municipalities. This move is fundamentally wrong, unjust and unsustainable. It is bad public policy and bad fiscal policy. Property taxes are an inelastic revenue that does not expand or contract quickly with economic conditions. Income taxes and sales tax are elastic, and more appropriate revenue sources derived from a broader area.
We don't fund primary health care from property taxes. Neither should we fund affordable and supportive housing given the fundamental importance of housing to health and social development.
Data to provide a systems approach &
It appears cities that have had the most success in reducing homelessness created detailed dashboards informed by data from people who are homeless. With careful regard to privacy, the data is enabling the testing and timing of specific interventions while creating accountability for those serving homeless people. Data can help support a system-wide approach so that all agencies involved coordinate their outreach and action efforts. As important as the data is, so to is documenting individual biographies. These are people, not faceless numbers. Everyone has a story. Everyone is someone. Each narrative helps us understand the whats, the whys and how we can provide supports earlier and what is needed now.
I am and will forever remain deeply in awe of and grateful to the dedicated health care professionals from the Hamilton Social Medicine Support Team (HAMSMaRT) for their commitment, care and compassion in servicing the needs of their patients. Many of whom spend time in temporary shelters or reside in encampments. I am particularly grateful during this time of COVID-19.
What's puzzling to me is we are prepared to take the advice of HAMSMaRT and to credit their work with preventing any outbreaks of COVID-19 in our shelters. Yet, we are not prepared to accept their considered medical expertise when it comes to dealing with encampments. Homelessness is, at its heart, a medical issue, and we owe it to Hamilton to listen to the best medical advice available, particularly during this public health crisis.
Additionally, I must acknowledge the work of Keeping Six, a community-based organization who remind us of the importance of treating all people with dignity. I respect their advocacy and the insight they bring to the ongoing discussions.
Together, they remind us that hiding a crisis is not a solution and that better things come by working cooperatively and listening to each other.
- Frankish, C.J., Hwang, S.W., and Quantz, D., The Relationship Between Homelessness and Health: An Overview of Research in Canada (2009)
- Schwan, K. et al The State of Women's Housing Need & Homelessness in Canada (June 2020)
- At Home. National Final Report, Mental Health Commission of Canada (2014)
- Farha, L., Schwan, K., A National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada: UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing (April 2020)
- Wilson, Maureen., Position Paper: Affordable Housing (2018)