Housing insecurity in Hamilton during COVID – the legal tensions

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CHALLENGING THE LAW 

The city of Hamilton voted overwhelmingly in favour of challenging a court injunction whose purpose is preventing the dismantling of ‘homeless encampments’.  

The Superior Court extended an injunction in early August to prevent the removal of individuals and temporary shelters in Hamilton in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent intensification of the housing crisis in the city. This injunction was filed by Hamilton Social Medicine Response Team, Hamilton Community Legal Clinic and Ross & McBride LLP in response to a removal notice issued on July 28th. The removal notice gave recipients until the 31st to accept shelter, housing or will be forced to “move on”.  

The justification for the amendment is as such: The “Parks” (No.01-129) and “Streets” (No. 86-077, 97-162) By-Laws enacted by the City of Hamilton violate the right of housing insecure and homeless individuals under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Such violations should not be tolerated in a free and democratic society, thus urging action to protect our most vulnerable populations. 

The injunction prohibits the city of Hamilton from taking further steps to evict or remove individuals from encampments, or dismantle said encampments in public parks or spaces, including those at First Ontario Centre and at Ferguson Avenue North. 

The injunction passed the three legal tests which allow for the suspension of a law. First, it is deemed a serious question. Second, significant harm will be caused if the injunction is not granted and finally, there must be a balance of consideration and convenience for all parties.  

POLARIZED RESPONSE 

The pandemic has caused significant economic turmoil. In Ontario alone over 1.3 million jobs were lost since it began. Mike Wood, chair of Hamilton tenant rights group ACORN, stated that despite not knowing the exact figures, the increase in homelessness in the city is due to COVID.  

The Hamilton community is divided in its response to these encampments. Some state that the encampments should be permitted because they promote a safer and more autonomous existence. Others believe that they promote drug use and dangerous conditions in the community. Others, such as councilor Terry Whitehead, have sarcastically suggested that those who are in favour encampments should provide their addresses to the city.  

Right now, we are in a position of establishing to what degree we are willing to respect and honour people’s fundamental rights to exist and live without impediment.  

How can the communities in Hamilton reconcile the Council member’s unsympathetic remarkswith the compassionate response of human rights advocates?  

Furthermore, what does the effort to dismantle the encampments reveal about Hamilton City Council’s attitude towards their housing-insecure constituents and the daily dehumanization they experience? 

CALL FOR COMPASSION 

The relationship between mental health and homelessness is a long standing and complex one. 

 Evidently, safe and adequate housing is an important factor for physical and mental well being. According to those occupying these spaces, the encampments provide a safe communal space. 

 The disruption of these communal spaces forces already vulnerable people to endure even more dangerous conditions, depriving them of their belongings and the company of friends. Those occupying these spaces have made it clear, they prefer them to being forced into shelters.  

Ultimately, through the establishment of community groups and access to illuminated and central locations, the ‘campers’ can achieve a greater quality of life than if they chose to live in the shelters even if they have to contend with the fear of arrest or disruption.  

Homeless people must already endure difficult circumstances, exacerbated by a closing of public washrooms and spaces during COVID. Indeed, it is the very fact that many have been experiencing homelessness for the first time during a pandemic that warrants special consideration. Consider, for example, what it would be like to find yourself recently homeless for the first time due to a global pandemic, with the last of your belongings in a tent, in a public space with a few if any trusted friends. Access to public toilets is extremely limited and having to adjust to this new lifestyle is difficult, then you’re being encouraged to move into an overcrowded shelter with an extensive history of violence. You refuse, and are advised to vacate within the next three days. You risk arrest, seizure of goods, fines and penalties. You simply want to have access to public space in a way that respects your basic humanity and freedom of choice, until you can get back on your feet. 

This moment is an opportunity for compassion, and a reconsidering of the ways we can utilize our public spaces to serve our communities. We are faced with the opportunity of holding space for the free and sovereign existence of our housing insecure brothers and sisters at a time when we are all being beckoned to join together in the fight against the pandemic. 

The remarks of certain council members demonstrate the state of the current paradigm, whereas there are some resources available to our homeless, but with little regard as to the humanity of these people.  

These are human beings who have the right to access basic resources for sustaining life as well as live and occupy public space in a way that allows for freedom of expression and choice. 

Wiki Production Code: A0071

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