Saturday, August 15, 2020 – “It’s getting nazi out there.”

I read with some interest Councilor Terry Whitehead’s opinion piece in the Hamilton Spectator on August 10, 2020 and the reply by two front line social workers. I’ll post a copy of the text here, with commentary added in red:

Communities should have their say on camps

Hamilton provides comprehensive programming for housing and social services

TERRY WHITEHEAD

As a city councillor, I often champi­on mental-health issues.

Well, Terry, I took a half hour to search google (and bing, and duckduckgo, and several other search engines) with various combinations of your name, Hamilton, and mental health keywords. Maybe my search skills aren’t what they should be, but I can’t seem to find any connection between your public statements on mental health (at least as reported in the media) and anything resembling ‘championing’. The only three I could find were this, this and this.

The cur­rent concerns are about the growth of tent encampments, I want to be clear that our city staff have done an incredible job to ensure that not only are our shelters low-barrier regarding being strict on any rules, but in most cases, they are very flexible.

I’ve talked to a dozen people staying at the ‘encampment’ on York street, after reading your article online. Your statements about those shelters being ‘low-barrier’ cannot be reconciled with their stories. Two of them in particular were quite eloquent about the abusive and bullying behavior, robbery, intimidation by (some) staff and other inhabitants, and arbitrary enforcement of minor rules against some shelter inhabitants, but not others. I’d rather sleep rough than be bullied every day myself, Terry. Not to mention that any stay in a shelter/motel is virtually certain to result in bedbug bites. At least one of the residents of the York street encampment can’t stay anywhere there are bedbugs. He showed me a single bedbug bite which had swollen and turned red. He’s allergic to them.

In fact, I am aware that less than 10 people have been banned from our shelters in total. In fact, we opened the First Ontario Centre to create more space and we also purchased hotel and motel rooms.

The response by two front line social workers below addresses these statements better than I can. You aren’t being accurate here, Terry.

The growth of these encamp­ments adjacent to neighbourhoods when there are other options for shelter, is concerning.

The ‘other options’ sometimes aren’t real options , Terry. See the commentary above. I don’t think anyone (sane or not) would choose to live in the street if there were available shelter where they could live with dignity. Those last three words are critical, Terry. Dignity is all many of the people in those encampments have left. I’ll repeat; there is a recurring theme of bullying in the reasons many of ‘those people’ give for not wanting to stay in a shelter. Most of them don’t use the word bullying, but the behavior they describe fits the label.

The prepon­derance of people that are in our encampments are people with ad­diction and mental-health chal­lenges.

Well, I don’t have any hard data, but just sitting and observing the people in an encampment for a day or two should be enough to convince any reasonable person that it is more likely true than not that the majority (but not a vast majority; something like 55-60%) are “are people with ad­diction and mental-health chal­lenges. But some (again, I don’t know the numbers) are addicted to various narcotics as a result of being prescribed opiate painkillers for a long period of time. You may have missed it in the news, Terry, but a while back some drug manufacturers began acting like drug dealers, and started pushing the hard stuff. It was even worse south of the border, but there was a lot of damage done here too. Some of those addicts are addicts because they did exactly what their doctor told them to do.

In his article, Wade Poziomaka is correct about the distinct needs of couples versus singles but providing shelter as a basic right through the city is paramount. Shelter is not an a-la-carte service. This is a service meant to meet the most basic need of shelter for those who find themselves without a place to stay.

The larger issue is the people with drug and mental health challenges who do not want to follow rules but still want us to provide housing.

You are misrepresenting fact here. Those rules are seemingly designed to keep demand for emergency shelter low. You’re at the point where a significant number of homeless would rather sleep rough than accept a spot in a city shelter. Isn’t that a clue to you that there’s something wrong?

Now, they are dictating the terms that the city must meet for them to pack up their tents.

Nah. They want you to follow federal guidelines. And it was a judge who put the brakes on your instant slum clearance plan downtown, the kind of slum clearance plan that often deprives the inhabitants of the few possessions they have, including identification. You think losing your ID is a pain in the ass? Try replacing it if you’re homeless and have nothing to verify your identity. That’s a pain in the ass.

I’ve spoken to mothers and fathers who have lost their children because of addiction or mental health to these encamp­ments.

Or, maybe, they lost those children to the systematic defunding and dismantling of what was once a good social safety net. One can make an argument for that, Terry. Imagine what this city would be if social services, mental health and affordable housing had been given the same budget increases over the last three decades as police. Just sayin’…

They see these encamp­ments as empowering and con­doning a very unhealthy and dan­gerous lifestyle. Their kids have been robbed and assaulted and yet they keep returning to these unsafe conditions.

Many of them prefer those unsafe conditions (and police and MLE harassment) to the treatment they receive, or the conditions in, the ‘safe’ accommodations you provide. Ever wonder why, Terry? Not all of them are “crazy”, “mentally ill”, or whatever other label used to dismiss their apparently irrational choice.

The City showed leadership and provided porta potties to support the encampment. This offering resulted in so much damage that contractors will no longer provide them in the encampment areas.

Yup, the porta potties went downhill pretty fast. {This next bit is based solely on uncorroborated information from one source, partially confirmed by another whose reliability is questionable. But it fits with my own observations} For about a week, there was a small group from the encampment on York keeping an eye on the portapotties by First Ontario Centre, and shooing away anybody up to no good (ie: potentially damaging the portapotties or stealing the toilet-paper). They gave it up after the contractors’ repeated derogatory comments on the lifestyle, appearance and lack of humanity among the camp inhabitants. The guy who told me the story said he resented being called an “animal” the most. His next comment was the title of this post.

We need to show compassion, yes, but we lack the legislative frame­work to provide prescribed tran­sitional and supportive housing. At the end of the day, there needs to be a review of the current legis­lation under the mental health act that will ensure organizations and families could put their loved ones in protective surroundings that will address their health needs.

Uh…hold up a second there. You want to give an “organization” the legal authority to put a citizen in “protective surroundings” that will address their “health” needs. You might want to read through this. It deals with Italy’s approach to psychiatry during the country’s years as a facist state. <sar> But, hey, facism (or any other authoritarian form of government) can’t happen here in our Canadian democracy, right? No need to worry about the increasing parallels between Ontario’s approach to governance in the last twenty years, and the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920’s. History doesn’t repeat itself that quickly, does it? (Aside from pandemics….)</sar>

Encampments become a vortex for drug dealers, users and criminal activity. For one to sup­port their addiction, many resort to theft or other criminal means to acquire their drugs. This is common knowledge.

Your slum clearance plan simply moves the problem a few blocks away. You know all those back laneways that riddle the lower city, Terry? They run down the centre of a block, or behind a row of buildings, or sometimes nowhere sensible at all. A great deal of the illicit underside of the city exists or does business in those laneways, a fact known to anyone who has ever lived downtown and kept their eyes open. Some of them carry more foot traffic than the public sidewalks. Clearing an encampment simply moves a lot of that activity into the laneways. But at least then it’s out of the taxpayer’s sight.

A family’s home is often their biggest expenditure. They buy where they can afford, and they take into consideration the zon­ing and other features of the neighborhood. They want a safe place to play and walk with their children, they pay their taxes du­tifully to ensure laws and bylaws are being enforced and services are being provided. I hear horror stories of people not letting their kids out after dark and they them­selves having to walk through these encampments with high anx­iety.

You see, we just can’t lodge encampments anywhere. The community must be involved in de­termining an appropriate location, otherwise, you’re failing the com­munity.

In other words, “not in my back yard”. Okay, got it Terry. Whose back yard, then?

Hamilton provides some of the most robust and comprehensive overall programming for housing and social services in Ontario. Hamilton is a regional health cen­tre that services over 2.5 million people while our population is only 537,000. We have state of the art addiction, psychiatric and mental health services that are sought out provincewide.

You’re kidding, Terry. You must be. Those “state of the art” addiction, psychiatric and mental health services” aren’t available to citizens, just taxpayers (some of them). An acquaintance of mine waited eleven months for an initial (30 minute) appointment with a psychiatrist. That was two years ago. She’s still waiting for the follow-up appointment. If you don’t have private insurance, you don’t have access to any of those “state of the art” services until after you’ve hit rock bottom. That’s just the way it is, Terry.

Property taxpayers should not have to nor can they afford to meet the regional needs off their property taxes.

I take it you aren’t a fan of Mike Harris’ policies? Well, neither am I. They’ve evolved into something resembling the early history of facist Italy. Facism works well at first, if your metrics are the economy and industrial output. Not so well later on, if you care about people.

The prov­ince and the federal government need to move away from per capita spending and start looking at needs-based funding. We’re failing from our success because we are known to be a compassionate com­munity. There was a time where other cities would provide bus pass­es for people to come to Hamilton to receive services here.

And, then again, a friend reminded me of a common acquaintance who had been given a bus ticket to Vancouver by the City of Hamilton in the late 90’s (along with $300). At the time, BC would extend welfare benefits to anyone, even without the 30 day residency requirement. He sold the bus ticket for $230, took the money to a charity casino in Niagara Falls, and ran it up to $4500, which he used as a down payment on a small car and went into the delivery business, while living in his car for seven months. He’s still in the delivery business and owns a small condo that he just finished paying for, and he’ll be paying taxes on that place until he dies. To the City of St Catharines. The City of Hamilton would have been much better off loaning him the $4500.

I know Hamilton, with the appro­priate funding from all levels of gov­ernment,

Starting with the municipal level of government?

could be a beacon of hope to many that suffer. In no way should this burden be carried alone by the Hamilton property taxpayer.

Who, then? The Hamilton taxpayer has plenty of money for the police budget. The taxpayers even bought the police their own “rescue” vehicle for $300K (plus maintenance, parts, etc etc etc. What are the real costs of operating that “rescue” vehicle, Terry? Just curious.)

It’s a Hamilton problem, Terry.

For those that read this article and don’t wish an encampment to pop up next to their neighbourhood, please contact your Councillor to make them aware.

Terry Whitehead is Hamilton city coun­cillor for Ward14

There was a response to Whitehead’s opinion piece printed in the Spectator today:

Homeless people deserve a say on encampments

People who live in tents are not are not empowered, contrary to city councillor’s claim

(Editor’s note: This is writ­ten by social workers work­ing on the front line with homeless people in Hamil­ton. The Spectator agreed to withhold their identities to protect them from po­tential negative ramifica­tions for speaking out.)

“The Spectator agreed to withold their identities”. I’m glad the Spec did, Terry. ‘Talking back’ is a crime in this city, or at least is treated as such. Even if you’re right. Read the rest of my blog, there are plenty of examples.

We are writing in re­sponse to Terry White­head’s opinion piece (Aug. 10) on encampments in the City of Hamilton. As front line workers who di­rectly support individuals experiencing homeless­ness, a majority of shel­ters are not low barrier, as there are strict rules and guidelines that must be followed.

This does reconcile with the stories I’ve heard. Maybe you should go to one of these encampments and talk to some people yourself, Terry. It’s very educational.

For example, if a resident is not engaged in a housing plan and reach­es the maximum stay of six weeks, residents will be service restricted for 60 days due to noncom­pliance as per city guide­lines for male shelters. Extensions can be grant­ed on a case-by-case basis, but are still time limited. We are curious to know the statistics on service restrictions and turna- ways that occur through­out the shelter system on a monthly basis as the numbers presented by Terry are inaccurate. First Ontario Centre opened at the beginning of CO­VID-19 to ensure that bed capacity remained the same while maintaining social distancing within the men’s shelter system. There was no increase in bed availability.

That last statement is true, and the City never said otherwise (at least, not that I’ve been able to find). You misrepresented the facts, Terry.

As Terry stated, shelter is a basic human right, therefore dismantling en­campments is a gross vio­lation of human rights as per the National Protocol for Homelessness En­campments released on April 30. They also rec­ommend meaningfully engaging homeless peo­ple in the decision-mak­ing of relocation. The op­tions of shelter or hotel are not feasible for every­one and are not a long­term solution. The city needs to implement a proper strategy — low barrier pathways into ad­equate housing. As of right now there is an eight-year wait-list for subsidized housing in the city of Hamilton. Also, a safe, pest-free, one-bed­room apartment is over $L200/month. The maxi­mum monthly shelter portion for an Ontario Works recipient is $390 and for an Ontario Disa­bility Support Program recipient it is $497, mean­ing a single person is al­lotted $390/month or $497/month for rent. It is literally impossible for in­dividuals on social assis­tance to obtain affordable accommodations in this current housing crisis. This does not include oth­er barriers that homeless folks encounter when searching for housing, such as credit checks, first and last month’s rent, proof of employment and landlord references.

It isn’t very easy for the working stiff either, Terry.

Despite best efforts of the city in providing por­table toilets to support homeless individuals, it took more than eight weeks to ensure that this basic need was met dur­ing a pandemic. It is dis­heartening to see that there are still limited op­tions for shower and res­troom access — a basic human necessity. Shelters and drop-in centres have done their best to meet these needs. However, in­adequate funding and a high demand for these services during a pan­demic has unquestion­ably demonstrated the immediate need for re­structuring our social ser­vice system.

Drug dealers and crimi­nal activity exist because of drug prohibition and will continue to exist with or without encampments. This statement is moot and contributes to the stigma that people who use drags endure on a dai­ly basis.

Decriminalization of drugs and access to safe supply will reduce crimi­nal activity and decrease the number of overdoses. Substance use disorder is defined as a mental illness and yet unlike depression and anxiety, we criminal­ize and incarcerate people who use drags.

Substance use is a health issue and should be treat­ed as such.

The cops agree with this postition, Terry.

Speaking as an ally for people who are living in encampments, there is never a moment where they enjoy living in a tent. People in encampments are experiencing hard­ships, such as harass­ment, violence and dis­criminatory treatment. People in encampments do not feel empowered as stated by Terry, but they do feel safe and secure when surrounded by oth­ers who are going through the same difficulties that they are. People camping do not have access to basic necessities, like water, showers and washrooms. This is not empowering this is inhumane.

As front line workers, we are deep in the trenches doing the absolute best we can, while being signif­icantly under resourced. We are dedicated and committed to ending homelessness in our com­munity, but there is only so much we can do with the resources we have available to us. Encamp­ments are a stark re­presentation of the gov­ernment’s inability to im­plement a strategic plan for safe, adequate and af­fordable housing.

For those who read this response, and wish to support our most vulner­able populations, please consider a monetary do­nation or tent donation to Keeping Six.

Or any of the following items: tents, clothing, socks, underwear, toilet­ries, menstrual products and backpacks to Grenfell Ministries.

Two front line workers in the homeless sector concerned for the health and well-being of our most vulnerable pop­ulation.

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