City of Hamilton continues litigation against homeless residents over encampments

Two volunteers help move a tent at a camp in Hamilton's East End last December.  (Bobby Hristova/CBC - photo credit)

Two volunteers help move a tent at a camp in Hamilton’s East End last December. (Bobby Hristova/CBC – photo credit)

Hamilton residents who have experienced homelessness in recent years are advancing a lawsuit against the city arguing that evictions from park camps violate their basic rights.

Her case is “supported” by a recent Waterloo-area court ruling, says Wade Poziomka, one of several attorneys at the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, which represents 19 people in the case currently before the Supreme Court.

Last month a judge blocked Waterloo from evicting residents from a vacant lot because the court said there wasn’t enough emergency shelter for people suffering from homelessness – a similar situation in Hamilton, Poziomka told CBC Hamilton.

On Thursday, the Waterloo Region announced it would not appeal the decision, noting that the council had authorized spending $163 million to increase shelter places.

Hamilton has 1,545 homeless people and just 515 shelters, according to the city’s latest data. Last month, shelters for men and families were full.

“I hope because of the Waterloo case [Hamilton] The City Council will see the risk in this litigation and will not waste taxpayers’ money fighting us, but will sit down and work with us,” Poziomka said.

“The bottom line is that there is currently not enough housing for people who are homeless. If the city cannot provide enough housing, the answer is, ‘Just freeze it?'”

Dan Taekema/CBC

Dan Taekema/CBC

Both sides had a case management call with a judge Thursday to discuss a timeline and next steps, Poziomka said.

Over the next two months, attorneys will collect and present their evidence, and a judge will decide what can be used in a future hearing of the motion.

The city declined to comment or say how much it spent on related legal fees as the matter is in court. CBC Hamilton reached out to three downtown aldermen for comment, but received no responses before publication.

The city can withdraw its case at any time with the approval of the council, Poziomka said.

“Applicants, as always, remain open to a solution that is in everyone’s interest — the homeless, the city and ultimately the taxpayer,” he said.

The dispute began at the beginning of the pandemic

The city has had a by-law for years banning tents in public spaces like parks. During the summer of 2020, a significant increase in tents popped up at various locations around Hamilton. Doctors, lawyers and attorneys obtained an injunction barring the city from evicting camp residents.

The previous council period voted to challenge the injunction and won in late 2021. The city began enforcing its bylaws again.

The 19 applicants submitted their charter application in November 2022. They argue they have the right to live in tents on city lots because of a chronic shortage of shelters and affordable, permanent housing.

Of the applicants, 11 identify as women, including seven indigenous and one black and transgender.

All but two of the applications remain homeless, the court document said. The barriers they face include high rents, inadequate welfare, relationship failure and domestic violence, as well as complex mental health, addiction and trauma issues that mean they cannot live independently.

Most applicants sleep outside without a tent, for example in doorways, in sleeping bags or on benches. They are not staying in emergency shelters for many reasons, their application states. These reasons include:

  • The accommodations operate on a first-come, first-served basis, which means accommodations specifically for women, youth, or couples staying together often fill up.

  • There is a limit to the number of nights individuals can stay.

  • Some individuals are banned for disruptive behavior, often caused by mental disorders and substance addictions.

  • Animal shelters do not allow individuals to keep personal items or bring pets.

  • Fear of physical harm, theft, or catching infectious diseases in the congregation environment.

Camps, on the other hand, provide shelter day and night and reduce the risk of hypothermia, heatstroke and dehydration, the claimants argue. There is also a sense of community among the residents.

City attorneys have previously argued that allowing camps would create a “secondary housing system” and encourage people to stay in tents rather than shelters and disrupt the city’s efforts to eventually provide them with permanent housing.

Local residents living near encampments have also reported increased anxiety, trouble sleeping and concerns about drug use, litter and violence, former councilors said.

Poziomka said many of the issues raised by residents could be addressed by the city, such as arranging garbage collection and setting up washrooms.

He is optimistic that with the newly elected councilors in office now, they will be more open to working together than in previous terms. For example, downtown Coun. Cameron Kroetsch (Ward 2) has been a strong advocate for the city to take a new approach to camps.

“From my point of view, they are a very compassionate group and they care about the homeless in the city,” Poziomka said. “I hope this is a different chapter and we will be able to work together instead of arguing.”


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