Solving Homeless Crisis Should be Collective Priority of all Levels of Government

(Photo Source the Hamilton Spectator)

Deputy Mayor Jackson, I want to thank all the residents, who shared their perspectives and thoughts whether as a delegate today or previously  by email. I have also listened, most attentively, to comments made around this table. I have been reflecting on this incident as well as the roles and obligations that elected officials have in this matter.

Under Ontario law, elected officials cannot direct the police in any manner. The laying of charges is solely at the discretion of the sworn police officer involved in the incident while the direction of the police force is under the sole authority of the police chief. Even the police service board and the individual members do not have the authority to direct police enforcement. Such interference could result in the member’s forfeiture of their position. The final decision on all police actions lays with the Chief.

The Ontario Police Services Act is a reflection of Canadian law that is written to prevent the unintentional or intentional creation of a police state. In this case, the requests that I have received to have Council drop the charges appears well intentioned even noble. Yet, I would suggest that if elected officials actually had the authority to drop charges, they would equally have the authority to direct the police to lay charges. In which case, we would have a situation wherein the police under the direction of elected politicians could be ordered to surveil and prosecute perceived political enemies of the state.

The Canadian Justice system, while far from perfect, is enabled by legislation to be an independent process free from political meddling to ensure a fair process. The accused is innocent until proven guilty by a court of law. Our Judges and Justices of the Peace are independent adjudicators, who decide on all matters such a bail, admissible evidence, court processes and the final decision of innocent or guilty.

In this incident, charges have been laid. Only the Crown Attorney has the discretion to decide, based on evidence, to pursue the charges in court or drop the charges if they determine that the likelihood of a successful prosecution is in question.

Separate from this judicial process, the Ontario Special Investigations Unit (SIU) has the legislated authority to investigation interactions between the police and residents. In this incident, the SIU has publicly announced that they are investigating the violent interactions between protestors and Hamilton Police.

I submit that it is most unwise for any elected official to comment on a matter that is before the courts. This judicial principle is sometimes referred to in legal parlance as sub judice which is a Latin phrase that simply means before the courts. Such comments may be seen as attempts to influence the courts, which may cause mistrials and or contempt of court charges. It is a matter that is taken quite seriously by the Judiciary.

That said, City Council does have the responsibility to draft and enforce policies to ensure that municipal employees under our sphere of authority treat all residents respectfully, reasonably, equally and free of any form of discrimination.

City Council does have a shared responsibility with the Province to address social issues such as homelessness, geared to income housing, emergency housing shelters. The historical lack of provincial funding for homelessness has been an ongoing issue. There are many factors involved in this recent homelessness crisis including: housing affordability, evictions due to inability to pay their rent, loss of a loved one who was sole income provider, domestic violence, discharged patients from psychiatric facilities, drug addictions, substance abuse etc.

Given that winter is now upon us, the goal should be to get unhoused residents into safe facilities with a warm bed, shower, food and social assistance. Recently, City Council unanimously directed staff to develop a winter housing strategy and action plan to assist residents who find themselves unhoused.  This direction speaks to this municipality’s collective responsibility, obligation and I would suggest a duty of care to eliminate the risk of exposure and death for our homeless residents this winter. This should be the collective priority of all levels of government.

Finally, Hamilton is not alone in dealing with a serious increase in poverty and homelessness. Municipalities across the province and even the country are looking for humane and compassionate solutions to this problem. We can certainly look to some innovative solutions in Waterloo and London as possible options. What we cannot do is ignore it, with the hope that it will improve over time. Given the current economy, the loss of employment due to the pandemic lock downs, the increase in evictions, and mental illness, this crisis will only get worse if all levels of government, psychiatric hospitals, health system partners and our social agencies don’t work together as a community to ensure safe, clean, affordable supportive housing.