City of Hamilton urged not to clear homeless encampments during COVID-19 pandemic

Physicians working with Hamilton’s homeless population are urging the city not to clear out homeless encampments during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The call from the Hamilton Social Medicine Response Team (HAMSMaRT) and Keeping Six comes after encampments were dissolved on the property of the former Sir John A. McDonald Secondary School in downtown Hamilton, as well as Jackie Washington Park near Hamilton General Hospital.

Dr. Jill Wiwcharuk, a physician with HAMSMaRT, said there have been many “robust” measures from the city to help homeless residents during the pandemic, including opening up hotel rooms, establishing a surge shelter at FirstOntario Centre, and surveillance testing of all clients and staff at a number of local shelters.

However, with the onset of warmer weather, Wiwcharuk is concerned about more people avoiding the shelters and opting to “sleep rough” outside.

“When COVID first reared its ugly head, the city and social service agencies, medical groups, all came together with this incredible response,” said Wiwcharuk.

“Even back then, we recognized that there was going to be a need for more resources for people that choose to sleep rough, especially as the weather improves. And that is what we’re seeing.”

As a physician, Wiwcharuk said she’s been able to get to know those who are living in the encampments that have sprung up across the city.

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“They’re starting to engage with me and be open to some treatment, and start to find a pharmacy that’s going to work for them to get some medications, and get some regular follow up. And then all of a sudden, bang — they’re told to live somewhere else.”

If that happens multiple times, Wiwcharuk said many of them “go off the grid” and lose touch.

Paul Johnson, the director of Hamilton’s emergency operations centre, said getting those who are homeless into housing is a high priority, but that doesn’t mean they can let the encampments stay standing.

“We have accelerated our efforts to have access to social housing units, to move people, actually sometimes, directly into permanent housing,” said Johnson during a city update on Monday.

“And we do have the capacity within hotels and shelters that we believe are safe opportunities for shelter.”

The city is also re-deploying more staff to help conduct outreach in order to relieve the burden on the existing outreach team, which Johnson acknowledged has been “overstretched” in their capacity to provide support.

“I’d say an approach that seeks to get people into a more safe environment than, quite frankly, large encampments, I’m not convinced are the safest option here. So we’re working very hard to do the right thing and bring people into the right kinds of shelter environments.”

Wiwcharuk said she understands the city is limited in what it can do to accommodate people in need of housing, but said this is a time to re-examine the barriers that have kept people out of housing in the first place.

“I know it’s difficult, but I’ve seen what the city has done in the last two months, and I know that this is something that can be looked at and improved.”

Johnson also acknowledged that the emergency shelter system is one of several congregate living systems that will need to undergo major changes in the coming years as a result of the lessons learned during the pandemic.

“The bottom line is, we can not go back to what we were experiencing in January, February of this year,” said Johnson.

“We had times where our shelters were at over 100 per cent. That means people are sleeping in bunk beds, people are sleeping too close together.

“Infection control in congregate settings is something that is very hard to do in the current configuration. And we should be preparing and using the lessons of this pandemic to help us build a better temporary shelter system moving forward.”

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