Evicting the Homeless

Early on the morning of January 17th, City of Hamilton staff, flanked by members of the Hamilton Police Services, conducted an operation to dismantle a tent city built on a segment of the rail trail, located at the foot of the Niagara Escarpment between Wentworth Street South and Sanford Avenue. They had hoped to do this quietly, without public attention or scrutiny, but a homeless friend of ours tipped us off, after receiving an informal heads up from his case worker.

According to police on the scene, nearby homeowners had complained about the encampment, prompting the visit from city outreach workers to demand that residents "move along". Most had already done so by the time they arrived. There was, however, one holdout. Shortly after 8am, this individual woke up to a dozen cops at the entrance of his home, ready to escort him away. City Parks and Recreation staff arrived ready to dismantle tents and chuck other belongings like bikes, tarps, and sleeping bags into a large dumpster.

Rob Mastroianni, the city’s manager of emergency shelter services, was there to oversee the eviction. We asked what would happen to the man the cops were taking away. Was he guaranteed a place in a shelter? Mastroianni “could not confirm” this. So…. what? Would he be taken to the police station? Would he simply be dropped off on the other side of the city, told not to return? One of the cops told us that the residents here would be provided “proper places to live,” but could not elaborate. What is a proper place to live? There are families living in these camps. At this point, women’s shelters are confirmed full and women seeking shelter space end up in overflow beds (read: chairs in waiting rooms). This is not “a proper place to live” and yet it’s somehow deemed adequate for the city’s growing homeless population.

Tent cities and other communities of homeless people are springing up across Hamilton. This comes at a time when rents are skyrocketing, vacancy rates are plummeting, and shelters are operating above capacity. What other options do people have? Even when shelters do have beds available, many people don’t feel comfortable staying in them. Particularly when overcrowded, shelters can be scary places. Many people have experienced trauma in the shelter system, including being robbed or assaulted in the past. Others find shelters inaccessible because they aren’t allowed to bring pets with them or because substance use is not permitted. So people choose to create their own shelters and communities as a means of survival.

A one-bedroom condo in the Stinson Lofts costs $400,000. If you can afford that, you can have the cops and city workers as personal security to “clean up” your neighbourhood by evicting and scattering undesirables. Local property owners and other residents fail to see the violence that they bring upon homeless people when they complain to the authorities about the noise, garbage, or petty theft that often accompany tent cities. They simply prefer a sanitized neighbourhood, free of unsightly poor people seeking shelter, community, and a sense of relative safety. They agree that it’s all very tragic. They just don’t want to have to look at it.

Tens of thousands of Hamiltonians are on the verge of homelessness. Tens of thousands of us are only one late rent payment away from eviction, and could easily find ourselves in the same position. If you’re making minimum wage, or on social assistance, or your credit score isn’t great, or your skin is the ‘wrong’ colour, or your English isn’t ‘good enough’, or you have a child or pet, it can be nearly impossible to find an affordable apartment and get approval from a landlord. And just like that... you’re homeless.

Mayor Fred Eisenberger likes to pat himself on the back and boast about the supposed “25 per cent drop in homelessness” in the past year, measured by a point-in-time count of homeless people conducted on one day. However, city staff admit that “relying on one snapshot is like gauging the weather using one day's forecast”. Clearly, this is not an accurate measure. Hamilton’s hidden homeless likely number in the thousands – some in shelters, some sleeping on friends’ couches, some hidden in tents. The issue is glaringly obvious to working-class people in this city. Eisenberger can’t sweep it under the rug any longer. The city can’t just keep evicting homeless people from their tents and expect no one to notice. Denying the homeless crisis and continuously telling people to “move along” is not a solution.

We don’t have the equivalent data for Hamilton, but last year Toronto saw 145 homeless deaths. Last week, a homeless woman named Crystal died after being trapped in a clothing donation bin. She had sought shelter in the bin on a night when women’s shelters were operating at 100% capacity. This week, another homeless woman died after being crushed by a garbage truck. She had been sleeping on a grate in the alley to keep warm. It is only a matter of time before similar tragedies happen in Hamilton. One homeless person is too many. One death is too many.

Canada is a rich country. There is no reason why anyone living here should be without a home. But landlords, developers, and politicians don’t see homes as the basic human need that they are. They see them as opportunities for profit. This is why the city hands out millions of dollars in incentives to developers, but builds few social housing units. This is why “investment” condos sit empty, while homeless people camp outside in the cold. This is why rich homeowners can complain to the city about homeless people “making a mess” and a few days later a dozen police officers will come to do their bidding, disposing of homeless people and their tents. This is why the city pushes for a large increase to the annual police budget ($178 million!!!) but pledges a measly $50 million to poverty reduction (spread over several years). It’s clear where their priorities lie and who they serve.

We want homes, not cops. We demand that working-class people in Hamilton be treated with dignity, rather than being seen as disposable. These are fellow Hamiltonians. Our neighbours. The fact that they must resort to sleeping in open-air camps across the city in freezing temperatures is a disgrace. The fact that they are being forced out of these self-made communities by armed police in order to satisfy the middle-class sensibilities of homeowners is disgusting. And it needs to stop.