Introducing YWCA Q&A: a new blog series tackling issues that affect our work at YWCA Hamilton

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Welcome to the first installment of YWCA Q&A – a semi-regular feature on our blog tackling issues that matter to us here at YWCA Hamilton.

Today, we’re getting into the topic of encampments – an issue that intersects with our work in homelessness and housing that has been the subject of intense debate here in Hamilton.

What are encampments?
Encampments can refer to any area of the city where one or more people live in non-permanent shelters, usually tents. Encampments can be made up of a single tent or a group of tents.

According to the City of Hamilton, there are currently roughly 20 known clusters of tents scattered around the city.

Who lives in encampments?

Encampments are populated by people who, for various reasons, have not been able to find housing elsewhere. Some are unable to afford to pay rent or cannot find affordable housing; others face addictions or mental health issues; and some may have had difficult experiences with the shelter system, or their needs are too complex to access shelters.

For many folks, encampments are often a last resort – particularly for women and non-binary people. Women are more likely than men to rely on precarious or dangerous housing, including couch-surfing or exchanging sex for housing. As a result, as YWCA Hamilton Director of Operations Medora Uppal pointed out to the Hamilton Spectator, when women are living outside, it’s usually because they’ve exhausted all other options.

“When we do see women on the street homeless, it’s the most desperate of situations,” she said.

Why do encampments exist here in Hamilton?

Hamilton is currently facing several crises that have led to a rise in visible encampments across the city. Hamilton currently faces a waitlist of over 6,000 people for affordable housing, which translates into a three to five year wait. Hamilton was also recently ranked as North America’s third least affordable city behind Vancouver and Toronto.  The lack of available housing for low-income Hamiltonians is a key factor that has influenced the uptick in encampments.

Hamilton’s shelter system is also over capacity, particularly for women and non-binary people. A recent city report showed that shelters serving women, transgender people, and non-binary adults have remained at full or over capacity since 2018. While the city has made hotel rooms available to people living in encampments, there are limited mental health, housing, and addiction services available there – and the services that are available are often short-term and crisis-oriented.

Many folks also avoid shelters due to restrictive rules, such as curfews and no pets, and concerns about drugs, theft, and personal safety. Others may not be able to access shelters because their needs are too complex. According to the City of Hamilton, roughly 25 to 30 per cent of Hamilton’s homeless population have more complex needs that can lead to them being turned away or restricted from shelters.

Why have encampments become the focus of debate?

Encampments have become a flashpoint in Hamilton early in the pandemic, after several encampments were cleared using bulldozers and large crews of city staff. Advocacy groups in Hamilton, including HamSMART and Keeping Six, say some encampments were cleared without notice and the residents’ belongings were destroyed.  They also pointed out that the encampments allowed outreach workers to connect vulnerable populations with the supports they need, particularly during Covid-19.

The debate escalated when in July 2020, a group of doctors, harm-reduction advocates and lawyers secured an injunction that barred the city from forcing people to move.

In September, a settlement was reached between the city and the coalition of advocates that included protocols related to encampments, including limiting encampments to five tents and requiring individual outreach with all encampment residents before clearing the site.

How do encampments connect to our work here at YWCA Hamilton?

Encampments continue to be an issue here in Hamilton and beyond, and are symptomatic of larger, systemic issues that YWCA Hamilton works to address every day. Through our programming – particularly Carole Anne’s place, our overnight drop-in centre for women – we see the high needs of our homeless population every day.

At YWCA Hamilton, we continue to advocate for increasing available affordable housing; individualized supports for high-needs Hamiltonians seeking housing; and a compassionate, human-based approach to complex housing issues.

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