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Letter about the City’s decision to dismantle encampments

The following letter was written by Mary Vaccaro, PhD candidate in McMaster's School of Social Work.

Jul 31, 2020

Dear Clr. Wilson, Mayor Eisenberger, Edward John (and everyone else who is cc'd),   

I am writing you today, to share some of my thoughts and worries about the response to encampments in Hamilton, particularly the decision to dismantle encampments in front of First Ontario Centre and on Ferguson St.    

I am a doctoral student at McMaster University and live in Ward 1. Over the past ten years, I have worked in women’s emergency shelters and drop-in programs supporting people experiencing complex homelessness in Hamilton. My intentions are to share a bit about what I have learned through this work, and to offer some alternate policy approaches, that may find themselves to be more productive than repeatedly dismantling encampments, and further displacing marginalized citizens of this City during a pandemic.   

The emergence of visible encampments in Hamilton’s downtown core is making the housing and homelessness crisis in our city more visible. Shelters are routinely full in this City, or they are unable to support the complex needs of their service users. Social housing waitlists are astronomical, and Housing First and Outreach programs were forced to shift operations during the pandemic, in ways that left people without adequate supports. It is pretty much impossible for a single person on social assistance to afford adequate market-rent housing and basic necessities of daily life.  People literally have nowhere to go.  

Without substantial change in this system (including the development of low-barrier, temporary and permanent supportive housing options), the City’s current strategy to engage folks living in encampments and transition them into temporary and permanent housing, is both ambitious and unrealistic.   

My experience working in women’s homelessness in Hamilton would lead me to believe that the City of Hamilton’s Emergency Community Services and Housing Division is committed to drawing on best practices, and emerging evidence from across Canada and Internationally to inform decision making. And yet, this commitment is not being used to inform responses to encampments.   

On April 30 2020, Dr. Kaitlin Schwan, and Leilani Farha (UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing) released the National Protocol for Homelessness Encampments in Canada.The recommendations in this report provide urban cites across Canada (like Hamilton) a human-rights based protocol to respond to encampments during the pandemic. It is evident that the City of Hamilton has chosen not to heed to these recommendations, and I am curious as to why? I would welcome any conversation that could help me to learn about the evidence being used to inform Hamilton’s current approach to supporting people living in encampments.  

I fully endorse the recommendations put forth by local organizations (including Keepng Six, HAMSMaRT, and the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic)that call for the City to not dismantle encampments, until there are low-barrier, temporary and permanent housing options made available by the City for the residents of these encampments.    

I would be interested in future conversation about finding ways to mobilize the national protocol (a moratorium on dismantling encampments and the provision of appropriate housing and supports) in our local context.    

In the coming months, Hamilton can expect to see a spike in homelessness, and current evidence suggests this will disproportionately impact women, gender-diverse people and women-led households. We are beginning to understand the ways that women were uniquely impacted by COVID-19, in relation to greater economic/job loss, higher rates of violence and complex care-giving demands.  I am deeply concerned about the future of this City, if tearing down the spaces homeless people have set up to survive a pandemic is seen as a remotely appropriate social policy strategy.  

My doctoral research, funded through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, investigates models of community-based permanent supportive housing for women, and gender-diverse people who experience complex homelessness. From a research, and policy perspective, encampments can actually teach us a lot about the importance of community, communal space and the kinds of formal and informal supports that are integral to developing long-term housing solutions for those who have endured long periods of living on the street.   

All of my experience in front-line work, community-based research, and through evaluating Carole Anne’s Place (through St. Joes Healthcare), demonstrate that women and gender diverse people, require access to permanent, supportive, low-barrier housing, that intentionally uses a gendered-lens in its design.   

As the City moves forward in what I would imagine is a shared commitment to meaningfully redressing the homelessness crisis, I am suggesting three potential policy responses to the remedy issues of housing, homelessness and encampments in our community.   

  1. Leverage existing resources in the system to rapidly develop an ad-hoc intervention that provides people living in encampments an alternate and accessible place to be (in accordance with the National Protocol for Homelessness Encampments in Canada
  2. Allocate attention and funding to the development of permanent and supportive housing models for women and gender diverse people who experience complex homelessness in Hamilton that face barriers to market rent tenancy  
  3. Re-imagine the residential care facility in Hamilton as a sector with the potential to provide a communal setting and level of care to those with complex housing, health and social care needs.   

 I look forward to future conversations about these important and emergent issues, 

Mary Vaccaro

Ph.D. Candidate –(McMaster University School of Social Work)   

Ph.D. Fellow –(Community University Policy Alliance – Women’s Complex Homelessness)