The Hamilton Spectator
New council, same old approach to homelessness
‘The process borders on cruel and insulting’
I have spent most of my career serving vulnerable populations, for nearly 25 years as an executive director/CEO and four years as a municipal politician in rural Ontario.
While I have seen a lot of things in my long career, nothing resembles the unfair and obstacle-filled response to the volunteers of the Hamilton Alliance for Tiny Shelters (HATS).
Homelessness is a national emergency, and tiny shelter communities are springing up across the country as a response to the lack of housing and services for those experiencing homelessness. For over a year, HATS has been working to create a tiny shelter community to help address the homelessness crisis in our city.
Formed by caring citizens who could not stand on the sidelines and watch this crisis, HATS is motivated by compassion and social justice. They see the humanity of those living on the streets, and their response is to do what others are doing across Canada; responding to urgent and emergency needs.
Instead of welcoming this temporary measure to help Hamiltonians in dire need of support, the indecision and foot-dragging of some City of Hamilton staff and politicians have made the HATS journey an exercise in tilting at windmills. It’s as though the city is attacking imaginary enemies or searching for evils instead of addressing the real, practical and goodwill supports that tiny shelters offer.
This bizarre response to HATS was never more evident than on Jan. 19 when HATS presented to the Emergency and Community Services Committee for the umpteenth time. It was another fruitless meeting for the group. What should be a “welcome with open arms” process turned into another inquisition of repeated questions regarding the expertise of HATS and the people supporting them.
The process borders on cruel and insulting.
HATS volunteers have done incredible work, including extensive research and consultations with other tiny shelter communities. There are over 100 volunteers, strong and ready to respond and agencies such as Wesley, Social Planning and Research Council, and The Hub are there with in-kind support and expertise.
The HATS volunteers themselves bring incredible experience to the table as they are made up of people who have had successful careers in a variety of sectors with skill sets directly applicable to the tiny homes project. There is no reason to keep questioning these volunteers and the support they have from Hamilton organizations with deep experience working with our most vulnerable residents.
Why are some on city council and staff making the HATS journey so arduous? Why are they skeptical of a group of volunteers that has repeatedly proven its purpose and plan? Are they not filled with the same sense of urgency that many compassionate Hamiltonians feel?
Every time a Hamilton councillor walks into city hall, they pass people living rough on the streets. People who are ill and desperate. They are well aware of the crisis. They are good people. They ran for office to serve the public.
How we deal with homeless people and living in abject poverty has
not changed much in thousands of years. We still have soup kitchens — but call them drop-in centres. What used to be poorhouses are now called emergency shelters. The concept of charity still pervades the homelessness system when what is needed is medical and social services and support — the kind that those of us who live privileged and entitled lives take for granted.
While there are no quick fixes to the homelessness crisis, new approaches need to be developed and implemented, regardless of who is coming forth with these approaches. If you don’t want permanent tiny shelters, build housing and redesign the shelter system.
We had great hopes when this new council was elected. We thought the transformation was in the works. Instead, we are experiencing what we experienced from the last council by many councillors.
City council still has a chance to lead and transform how we treat the most vulnerable Hamiltonians.
The right people have been elected to sit around the horseshoe. The right people to transform Hamilton into a genuinely inclusive and just community.
Let’s hope they do not squander this opportunity to save the lives of those most in need and decide at long last to support HATS.