COVID-19 wave and winter weather have worsened Hamilton’s housing crisis
C/O Gustavo Sanchez
Amidst cold weather and high COVID-19 case counts, the city of Hamilton failed to protect and consider its unhoused residents
January 2022 was a difficult month for the city of Hamilton, with temperatures dipping as low as -20 degrees Celsius and hundreds of Hamilton residents hospitalized with COVID-19. Unfortunately, low temperatures and high rates of COVID-19 created even more obstacles for Hamilton’s unhoused population.
HESN is an advocacy group and support network run entirely by volunteers in the Hamilton community. They advocate on behalf of the needs of unhoused residents of Hamilton and provide unhoused people with support and resources.
Vic Wojciechowska, another member of the Steering Committee, explained how shelters in Hamilton have not been adequately supported by the city throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Wojciechowska explained that, earlier this year, all but one of Hamilton’s men’s shelters were experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks.
“Given the Covid outbreaks, [people] were being refused at the door. We had testimonies come in from shelter workers about the lack of municipal support for staffing, for adequate PPE, for any sort of code protocols or measures. We are two years into this pandemic now. The city has had adequate time to respond, to prepare, to prioritize and yet we're in the same position that we were a year ago,” said Wojciechowska.
Hagger added that, over the past few months, the city has taken a clear stance against people residing in encampments by saying that tents have to go.
“They care about aesthetics. The city cares about maintaining a certain image. While making these remarks and saying all these horrible things, they aren't providing any alternatives that are sustainable or dignified,” said Haggar.
Hagger recalled seeing police officers and city workers tell encampment residents to move farther into the trees where they would be less visible.
“The city doesn't have an issue in terms of letting people die in the cold; they also have an issue around maintaining a pristine image of Hamilton that excludes all poor and unhouse folks,” said Hagger.
In November 2021, several people who protested against encampment evictions were arrested. These people said that police officers used violence during the arrests, leaving them with various injuries.
In a video shared by the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion, officers can be seen tackling three Black youth in front of Hamilton’s central police station.
Wojciechowska also pointed out how many of the people making decisions about Hamilton’s housing crisis do not truly understand what the options for unhoused people look like. Wojciechowska recalled that, at a community delegation day to inform the operating budget, a city councilor expressed confusion about why one might choose to live in an encampment over a shelter.
“These are the people that are making the decisions. They don't even understand what the conditions within shelters are,” said Wojciechowska.
Wojciechowska highlighted how this lack of understanding leads the city of Hamilton to present options to unhoused community members that are not truly viable.
“We had someone provide testimony that, during the outbreaks in the women’s sector, people who were in COVID-19 isolation would not be able to access the shower for ten days. Again, these are being presented as options to people. In an encampment, at least you have community, at least you have control over isolation and contact and exposure with others. Whereas [the other option is that] you're crammed into a shelter with who knows how many other people, a shelter in an active outbreak and the city is calling this a housing solution,” said Wojciechowska.
Despite the current situation, Wojciechowska and Hagger expressed optimism that through the work and advocacy of HESN, the public has become more aware of Hamilton’s housing crisis.
“There's been a shift in public narrative over the last year regarding encampments. [There has been a shift in] understanding the conditions and the causes of encampments and understanding how these are linked to the housing crisis and how this is aligned to municipal failure to take responsibility of housing people,” said Wojciechowska.
Treating all members of our community with care is crucial, and this involves respecting and considering the needs of unhoused community members. Moving forward, the city of Hamilton still has much work to do in order to support unhoused individuals.