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Analyzing Hamilton’s Decision to Allow Homeless Camps in Parks: A Glimpse into Canada’s Future

Hamilton, Ontario, recently voted to allow homeless encampments in parks, despite ongoing legal battles surrounding the removal of such encampments. This decision comes as the number of homeless encampments across the country continues to grow, with court rulings stating that cities cannot remove these encampments. In 2009, a landmark court decision in British Columbia established that removing encampments can violate the right to “life, liberty, and security” under the charter. Since then, subsequent court decisions, including one in Waterloo in January 2023, have further clarified that cities must have certain types of shelter available if they decide to remove encampments. These shelters must accommodate couples, allow freedom of movement and drug use, and provide “low-barrier” and “accessible” beds. Homeless encampment residents and advocates are increasingly challenging cities in court to prevent the dismantling of encampments. In Hamilton, the city council voted to allow encampments in city parks, but with certain limitations such as five tents per encampment and a minimum distance from schools and private property. The council faced strong community opposition to this decision but cited a lack of alternative shelter options and legal issues as reasons for allowing encampments. City Councillor Esther Pauls, who voted against the decision, expressed concerns about the negative impact of encampments on nearby residents and the potential for an influx of homeless people to the city. Hamilton is the only city in Ontario to formally allow park encampments, and it may be the only city nationwide. Other cities may allow tents in parks overnight but not during the day. While Hamilton’s decision is unique, Halifax’s city council recently discussed a similar option, which was ultimately rejected. Pauls and other officials across the country are calling on the provincial and federal governments to provide more funds to address homelessness. Court decisions have established that cities must have alternative shelter available before dismantling encampments to avoid violating the right to liberty outlined in the charter. However, the interpretation of “low-barrier” and “accessible” shelters and the power of municipalities to remove encampments will likely continue to be determined in court cases. Despite the legal protections, encampments are sometimes dismantled for safety reasons, such as fire hazards. Homeless encampments are seen as ineffective solutions to a serious problem and lacking in comprehensive support and services for homeless individuals.

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