Working Together to Support Hamilton’s Encampment Residents
From the Nest, Issue 3
by Hamilton Encampment Support Network
As Defund HPS‘ action, since dubbed “Freedom Camp,” came to an end in late 2020, the creation of the Hamilton Encampment Support Network (HESN) was officially announced to the public. HESN started in the spirit of Toronto’s Encampment Support Network (ESN), a neighbourhood-based collective of volunteers who support people living in encampments.
ESN Toronto has been successful in coordinating resources to people in their communities and defending those living in encampments.
Building on this inclusive model, HESN got its start when a group of legal observers and community members were present for large and violent encampment teardowns on Ferguson Street and at the First Ontario Centre in October 2020. At these encampment teardowns, we watched as the City of Hamilton and the Hamilton Police Service (HPS) collaborated to displace more than 80 residents.
During the several day teardown process, we used our experience to prioritize de-escalation and to centre the voices and needs of encampment residents and were ultimately successful in helping to negotiate with the City and HPS to ensure the safety of those facing a harmful eviction and removal process.
Since that time, we have been carefully and thoughtfully reflecting, learning, discussing, and planning. We recognized the potential for a greater community response to supporting those who live in encampments and a more inclusive way to support their autonomy as we work towards free and safe housing for all in our city.
As of today, we are completing training for our volunteers and equipping them with the knowledge and skills that they will need to support encampment residents in their neighbourhoods. This includes training, using a consent-based approach, on de-escalation, non-interference, and harm reduction based in ethical principles of disability justice, anti-harassment, anti-racism, anti-oppression, and decriminalization.
We’re taking this early building work seriously, and slowly, as we recognize the harm that can be done from focusing more on intention than impact and the perils of saviour-centric or performative approaches to supporting others.
We also recognize that we will not be doing this work alone. We plan to continue to work with organizations on the ground who are already supporting encampment residents and houseless Hamiltonians including Keeping Six, HAMSMaRT, The AIDS Network, and many other service agencies, street ministries, and social justice organizations.
We’re not looking to replace the work being done, but to add to the network of support that already exists and we understand that we cannot single-handedly stop the housing crisis. We will take direction from those who live in encampments and respect that they know what kind of support they need from us, and when.
It’s important, for instance, to recognize that although those who live in encampments may be used to being transient, communities and relationships are also built within encampments. People should be given the choice of whether or not they want to stay in the communities they’ve built.
What we have seen at past teardowns is the City coercing or bribing individuals to leave — often claiming that temporarily relocating folks to hotels will somehow address the gaps in housing services. This approach completely undermines the rights of individuals to live in and create communities in spaces where they feel safe. When these short term housing supports fall through, as is too often the case, this coercive disruption makes it difficult for people to reestablish communities and find support in the aftermath.
Our hope is to be able to step in, when asked, and if necessary, to defend the rights of those living in encampments across Hamilton. We realize that’s an enormous task, so we’ll be establishing and launching our network in the lower city starting this Spring and building capacity from there.
HESN is not starting in a vacuum or from a desire to impose a set of values on Hamilton’s houseless population. Some of us have come to this work from a place of lived experience; people who have experienced houslessness, housing insecurity, mental health crises and illnesses, and who deeply understand the shelter system first hand.
And while our primary focus will be on supporting encampment residents, this network will also serve as an advocacy body. HESN will not only strive to be present at every encampment teardown, taking the lead from encampment residents, but we will speak out publicly about the injustices and violence faced by Hamilton’s houseless population.
At times, we will be critical of the tools, techniques, and enforcement protocols that the City and its agents use when they interact with houseless Hamiltonians and we will do what we can to hold them accountable and encourage meaningful change.
Together, we believe that we can build solidarity and mutual respect, offer mutual aid, and help Hamiltonians to make meaningful connections with all of their neighbours.
HESN is launching this Spring to support encampment residents in Hamilton’s lower city