Sun. Dec 5th, 2021

Gord Smyth spent Wednesday taking down tarpaulins and packing tents and preparing for what he hopes is his last move in a long time.

As he cleaned up the camp he’s been calling home for the past few months, the 54-year-old had one thing on his mind – the CityHousing Hamilton apartment, which he has finally secured, or more specifically, the hot shower it’s coming with.

“I have not even thought of it as a new place to live. I have thought of it as a shower and a bathroom,” he said.

“We have to be in there for a few days and scrub dirt off for six months.”

Smyth said he began living on the street in June after being evicted from his long-standing apartment after the property owner decided to tear it down to build condominiums.

He encamped in various places around the city, but said he was moved by a few days or weeks – and in one case after just a few hours – according to the city’s statute, which barred tents in public spaces.

“It’s definitely not camping, it’s surviving,” Smyth said.

“It’s a really hard life. You have to take care of food, you have to take care of your hygiene, and a lot of it is impossible.”

Looking forward to a comfortable bed

Central Park was where he decided to stand on his stand after arriving in August.

Smyth was one of five people who had lived in camps and was named in an application to the Superior Court requesting an injunction to prevent the town of Hamilton from tearing them down.

“Moving every other week, or moving every day, or moving every time you have to move was not acceptable,” he said Wednesday.

The attempt at an injunction ultimately failed.

But Smyth said lawyers and agencies, including police, were pushing for him to be allowed to stay in the park while he continued to fight for housing.

On Wednesday, he signed a lease on an apartment and picked up the keys.

“Relief, complete relief,” he said, describing how it felt.

“[I’m] looking forward to leaking into a comfortable bed, looking forward to not having to run the generator or pay for fuel to stay warm, sleeping in clothes under so many sleeping bags. “

A ‘desperate’ situation

Dr. Jill Wiwcharuk said she believes Smyth’s process of finding housing was likely accelerated by the fact that he was allowed to stay in one place. Others have not been so lucky.

As a member of the Hamilton Social Medicine Response Team (Hamsmart), the doctor said she visits several camps each week and is struck by the desperation she sees there.

Dr. Jill Wiwcharuk is an inner-city physician who primarily works with people who are homeless and struggling with addiction. (Shelter Health Network)

“Every time I’m in a camp, I get people to tell me how much they want in,” Wiwcharuk said.

“Again and again people come to me and ask for help to get inside and there is simply not enough space.”

This is especially true for women and couples, she said, adding that she is “disgusted”, it took until October for city staff to recognize that there are not enough shelter beds, especially for women.

The city said earlier that staff were preparing a report on winter plans and changes to the shelter system, which would be shared during a December 7 meeting. The municipality did not immediately respond to a comment on Wednesday.

Wiwcharuk said the impact of shelter and housing shortages can already be seen in “terrible” results, including two suspected overdose deaths this week alone.

“I’ve never seen the situation as desperate as it is right now,” she said. “It’s awful.”

Smyth said it was a big weight off his shoulders to secure an apartment.

But despite having found a permanent place to live, “it is not over.”

Smyth smiles as he takes a break from packing his tents and tarpaulins. Despite finding an apartment, he said camp residents across the city continue to experience fighting. (Dan Taekema / CBC)

He pointed to other camps across the city, including at JC Beemer Park, where a fire destroyed several tents and people’s belongings Wednesday morning.

“It’s devastating. It’s not going to go away,” Smyth said.

“It can happen to anyone, and if you’re not prepared, you need to find a tent and a place to hide, because that’s the only option the city has right now.”

Smyth still counts himself among the victims, saying the fear that a knock on the door could send him straight back to a camp is still there in the back of his mind.

“The fear never goes away,” he said. “It will always be present.”

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