Why Hamilton is now permitting homeless encampments and tiny homes in parks

Mayor Andrea Horwath says the long-term goal is to have everyone in permanent housing
Courtney Shea
A woman speaks to a crowd of people on a sunny day
Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath speaks to supporters during a campaign rally in London, Ont. on Sunday, May 29, 2022.THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Geoff Robins

Canada’s homelessness crisis went from bad to worse during the pandemic years, as encampments popped up in municipalities across the country. In the past, these tent cities were forcibly removed by local law enforcement. (For example: the now infamous operation to remove encampments in various Toronto parks.) But this month the city of Hamilton approved a fresh approach—one that acknowledges encampments as an interim reality of the housing crisis and attempts to balance the needs of all community members.

Per new protocols, encampments of five or fewer tents will be permitted in parks and public spaces, provided they are more than 100 metres away from schools, daycares or playgrounds. Outreach workers (not law enforcement) will be the first point of contact in the case of infraction. “We are moving forward with a housing-first, human rights–based approach,” says Hamilton mayor Andrea Horwath. The plan that will also include access to washroom and shower facilities and more frequent garbage cleanup.

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Hamilton city council has also approved a new Tiny Shelters pilot, a privately funded initiative consisting of 10 or 12 small cabins installed along Strachan Avenue, which is currently the location of a tent encampment. The idea is that these heated and electrically wired facilities will provide a level of security and autonomy—a key step on the path to permanent housing. We talked to Horwath about why cities alone can’t solve the homelessness crisis and why bringing in the police is a last resort.

Hamilton’s unhoused population has spiked significantly over the last few years. Affordable housing and homelessness are issues across the country, but is there something specific happening in your city?

I think that we are dealing with the same inflation, the same housing affordability and the same poisoned drug supply. In Hamilton, there has certainly been a rapid increase in the cost of homeownership and rental housing, where we’ve seen increases of more than $1,000. We’re a working-class city with all kinds of people contributing to the wonderful social fabric, but with a lower average income than other Ontario cities, our affordability situation is even worse. Our social support provides nowhere near enough money so that many people could afford to live here.

So it’s an imperfect storm?

Yes, exactly. Hamilton declared a state of emergency relating to homelessness as well as opioid addiction and mental health this spring, partly to ring the alarm bell with other orders of government. We can’t address these issues without support from the provincial and federal governments. There is no question that everyone involved believes that the best solution is housing, but that will take time and money. So, in the meantime, how are we going to address people currently camping out in our community? That is what the new protocols are meant to address. Are they perfect? No, but we can adjust as we learn.

What were the old protocols around encampments?

For a long time there were none. This all started before I took office, back in the summer of 2020 when a group of advocates filed an injunction that prevented the removal of a particular encampment on Ferguson Avenue. The question became: what is the best way forward?

Originally, the proposed protocols included “sanctioned housing”—large, managed sites on city-owned land where people could pitch their tents in proximity to sanitation and electricity. But that got nixed. How come?

Because we already have sanctioned housing in Hamilton—they’re called shelters. We have limited resources, and if we direct them all toward creating another shelter, that means less for our long-term permanent housing goals. This is part of what’s called a “housing-first” approach to ending or improving homelessness.

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What does that mean exactly?

It’s about looking at housing as a human right. It looks like providing showers and washrooms, mental and physical health support. At the same time, we’re trying to mitigate the impacts on the community and residents. As a working-class city, we have many neighbourhoods where kids need their parks. They don’t have cottages or even backyards in some cases. So some of our protocols deal with separating an encampment from schools or playgrounds.

Council has also approved a new community Tiny Shelters project: a collection of small cabins set to be located at what is currently an encampment site. Is that part of the protocol?

That is a separate initiative but certainly related to the city’s approach to homelessness. The project is run and funded by a local organization called Hamilton Alliance for Tiny Shelters, which is putting together its own pilot. I think they are going to start with 10 or 12 small homes with heat and hydro. There will also be a community base for dining, on-site showers and washroom facilities. The idea is that people who are currently in tents could move into these shelters as part of a transition to housing. In fact, the land that has been selected for the pilot is currently the site of an encampment, so we will have a chance to observe that transition, which is not an easy one.

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We have heard from a number of people who have spent years living rough. One of the things they say is that it’s not easy to go from that life to being in an enclosed space. We hope these tiny shelters will help to facilitate a transition, ultimately, to permanent housing.

How do you respond to the idea that the rights of residents to local green space are trumped by people in encampments who have nowhere else to go?

I wouldn’t use the word trumped, but these are the conversations we’ve been having around our council tables. Kids need to be able to play in the park, and seniors need to be able to go for walks in public spaces and feel safe. So how do we make that happen while making sure we deal with unhoused people with compassion?

Speaking of compassion, the city of Toronto was heavily criticized for its handling of encampments via a violent, militarized removal by force. There were viral images of officers in riot gear. What was your reaction to that strategy?

A lot of the footage was quite shocking for a lot of people. I think it shows that we can learn from what other communities do. Nobody knows the answers. There is no silver bullet.

How does law enforcement fit into the new protocols?

We talked about establishing a 72-hour rapid-response system so that if there is a problem, people can contact the city and have a response from an outreach worker in a reasonable amount of time. For example, if the number of tents exceeds what is allowed or there is an issue with waste. In the context of a housing-first approach, the police would be the very last resort. We’re trying really hard to respect people’s dignity. Nobody wants to live in an encampment. These are people who are not able to access affordable shelter, and it is our job to change that reality.

You mentioned getting funding from the province and the feds, who are not providing new funding levels for housing. Might your formerly combative relationship with Doug Ford be getting in the way?

Oh, no. It’s all water under the bridge. The premier has been quite available when I’ve needed to talk to him. We’ve just come out of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario meetings, and it’s really clear that all municipalities are facing these challenges. Talking with MPs and MPPs and various ministers, I feel like there is a willingness to work together.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.