Ontario woman living illegally in RV encampment as rents continue to rise

An unhoused woman almost a year into exile at a small RV encampment in Hamilton’s North End says she’s hopeful a permanent housing solution that fits her needs will arrive soon.

ontario woman living illegally in rv encampment as rents continue to rise

Heather Grant’s precarious life at the Barton-Tiffany brownfield continues after a dispute over plumbing with a landlord last June put her family into a tent at Woodlands Park then the recreational vehicle they currently reside in today.

“We’ve been here since September, but in December they gave us a notice that we had to move,” Grant recalls.

The 65-year-old and family purchased the camper for roughly $1,000 in the fall after the city removed a non-compliant encampment at Woodlands Park near Barton Street East.

The dwelling is a step up from the chilly tent she had been in at Woodlands but her current location is not free of hazards like the discarded needle she was poked with about a month ago, which required medical attention.

“My daughter was cleaning up, because we have dogs, and she was worried about the dogs being stabbed,” Grant described. “I picked up the bag to hand it to my daughter, and I put it along my leg and I got stabbed.”

Grant says she’s now on medication to fight off the risk of an infection.

“So I’m on pills that don’t agree with my stomach, and I’ve got to watch what I eat,” said Grant. “I’ve lost so much weight.”

So far, the city’s parking division has not acted on multiple notices they’ve given Grant to vacate the municipally owned land north of Barton Street West at Tiffany Street.

The city’s encampment protocol, ratified last August, allows for up to five clusters of tents at certain locations but doesn’t allow for RVs to be parked in these spots.

Grant insists she and her family are victims of rising rents and lack of affordable housing that have priced many who rely on pensions and disability supports out of the market.

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A one-bedroom suite in the city checked in at about $1,875 on average and a two-bedroom unit close to $2,300 when Grant and her late husband were seeking a new residence last summer.

“We believe we have enough to like get … affordable housing for us because my daughter’s only on ODSP and my grandson works every day except for Saturday and Sunday,” Grant explained.

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Grant has lived with her daughter and grandson in the RV at the brownfield since her husband of 40 years, Tim, died in February.

Tim, 67, had been traveling back and forth regularly between the RV encampment and the hospital for dialysis treatments before his death. His wife found him one morning lying still on their trailer floor.

Small clusters of mobile homes have been popping up in places like Confederation Park, the Barton-Tiffany lands and Pier 8 since early last year, which caught the attention of councillors whose wards have hosted them.

A City of Hamilton spokesperson says housing outreach teams have been visiting the Barton-Tiffany site since December 2023 to connect residents with support and services.

“The individuals at this site have been told that parking at the location is illegal, and have been offered other options,” communication manager Antonella Giancarlo said. “The joint city team will continue to engage with individuals to better understand their needs and connect them with city and community supports.”

According to the municipality’s latest figures, Hamilton’s homeless population is roughly 1,600 people.

Staff estimate there are currently about 200 people living within 50 separate encampments throughout the city.

In mid-May, Hamilton’s acting director of Licensing and Bylaw services expressed concerns over health and safety around encampments that appear to be growing with the “nicer weather” that are “bottlenecking” compliance inspections.

Brother Richard MacPhee, the Good Shepherd’s chief executive officer, says pressures on the local shelters have not diminished since the end of the winter and that turning away those seeking a space is a daily occurrence.

“Particularly in terms of women, children and families who are in need of emergency support because they’ve lost their home or they’re fleeing domestic violence,” MacPhee said.

Legal pressures over clearing encampments and edicts from the United Nations insisting housing is a human rights spurred dialogue around a protocol addressing the city’s unhoused.

A pair of community organizations, Keeping Six and the Hamilton Social Medicine Response Team (HAMSMaRT) had advocated for a “people’s protocol” calling on the city to prioritize shelters with support to aid those without homes in unsafe outdoor living conditions.

Council would instead opt for an arrangement that balances the needs of those unsheltered outdoors while protecting the integrity of parks in residential neighbourhoods.

“Recognizing that even if today we were in a place where we didn’t allow tents in parks, I can assure you that we likely would have tents in parks because people don’t have opportunities and other places they can go,” the city’s housing director Michelle Baird explained.

Since the creation of the encampment protocol, the city’s outreach has visited close to 472 sites, with municipal law enforcement issuing some 419 enforcement notices.

Coun. Cameron Kroetsch, who represents Ward 2 and the area around the Barton-Tiffany lands, suggests the current protocol is “lacking in lots of ways” but concedes it does provide a foundation to build from. Kroetsch says he has not spoken to Grant specifically but has had dialogue with others in city encampments, which seems to point to housing that suits differing situations.

“Oftentimes, people are in a relationship, couples, and they want to stay together,” he revealed. “Sometimes people have children and they want to remain with their children. We don’t have couples shelters (and) family shelters with any space. We are still mostly full or overcapacity at shelters for single individuals.”

Grant says her most dire needs are being supplied by outreach visits which bring water, food and clothing. However, workers have yet to match her multiple-member family and dogs with housing that suits their circumstances.

Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, says the positive news is recent investments in supportive and affordable housing by the federal government, but those builds are years away. Cooper and the Hamilton Alliance for Tiny Shelters (HATS) are hopeful they’ll get another shot at deploying roughly two dozen cabins to relocate residents like Grant to a more safe and secure temporary home with support.

Stakeholders have seen six potential locations for the eight-by-ten foot cabins fall by the wayside since the idea was pitched to council almost two years ago.

The Strachan Linear Park site in the West Harbour area was the last attempt at a build but was nixed in the second half of 2023 after a cost analysis revealed more cash investments would be needed to make it work.

Cooper says finding the right partners and community consultation are some of the moving parts that will take time to iron out, meaning a new spot is not likely to be ready until late 2024 at the earliest.

“The leadership team for HATS is continuing to look at sites and continuing to engage community members,” he said. “I’m hopeful that there will be some news coming shortly, but unfortunately … I don’t have an update on that.”

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