Hamilton cold alert plans under fire after community funds warming centre over Christmas


Published December 28, 2022 at 1:11 pm

Dozens of Hamilton residents chipped in over Christmas so a warming centre could help unhoused people avoid the potentially fatal consequences of being outdoors overnight during minus-22C temperatures. That outpouring also came with outcry about how it came to that.

Wednesday, following days of donations that meant The Hub Hamilton (78 Vine St.) could provide shelter from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. during a cold spell, the city offered what is being called an “interim solution.” The Hub will be open from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. overnight each night until Jan. 2, in addition to its regular nightly hours. The Central Memorial Recreation Centre (93 West Ave. S.) will also stay open until 10 p.m. from Dec. 31 to Jan. 2.

That said, the city was caught with what Mayor Andrea Horwath called a “service gap” on Christmas Eve, during the major North American winter storm that hit Southern Ontario and the Buffalo, N.Y., region. Horwath also stated, via Twitter, that the city’s action plan for cold weather alerts will be reviewed.

“I will be seeking a full review of the City’s Cold Alert and community response protocol so that this does not happen again,” Horwath tweeted.

The mayor did not say whether she would seek that by calling an emergency council meeting, or through a committee meeting. The city’s administrative offices do not reopen until Jan. 3. The city’s meeting agenda lists two special general issues committee (GIC) meetings on Jan. 12. The emergency and community services committee (ECSC), which voted four weeks ago to allocate $125,000 to emergency warming services for people living outdoors, is not slated to meet again until Jan. 19.

The previous council did have a short-notice emergency meeting in August 2021 to authorize removing encampments for people living outdoors.

The Hub is contracted with the city to open overnight during a cold weather alert. Executive Director Jennifer Bonner said in a Twitter post on Dec. 25 that it costs less than $3,000 nightly to employ a support staff that includes McMaster University medical students and Mohawk College advanced police studies students learning “upstream change.”

At 7:26 p.m. on Christmas Eve, the city’s medical officer of health cancelled the cold weather alert since “temperatures are no longer at or below minus 15 degrees Celsius or minus 20 with windchill.” Environment and Climate Change Canada data said it was -12 with a -22 windchill — two degrees colder than the windchill threshold.

Word of The Hub being unable to open prompted a giving campaign on Twitter. The Hamilton Community Benefits Network also chipped in to allow for a warming centre to stay open from that night through to Monday morning (Dec. 26).

Martin Kuplēns-Ewart, a product designer who often uses his Twitter platform to weigh in on social justice issues, was among those who signal-boosted the need for support.

“Immensely happy Christmas today, seeing(Hamilton) Twitter come together to make it a warm one for our underhoused neighbours,” Kuplēns-Ewart wrote on the afternoon of Christmas Day.

Ford government denied former mayor’s funding request

That $125,000 allocation to emergency warming services came in response to the province denying a boost for funding that former Mayor Fred Eisenberger made late in his term. The ECSC learned in late November that Housing Minister Steve Clark decided the province could not “address… at this time” a request by Eisenberger for extra funds to help the underhoused, or those at risk of losing a place to live.

That letter from Clark was dated Oct. 19, five days before Ontario-wide municipal elections. It was also 15 days after the minister toured the affordable housing building run by YWCA Hamilton.

The letter with Clark’s “we are taking it under consideration” response was presented to the ECSC near the end of November. That was about two weeks after a new-look council — with 10 new representatives among the 16 members, including Horwath as the city’s first female mayor after 14 years as Ontario New Democratic Party leader — was sworn in and seated.

Previous Hamilton councils were often critiqued for putting process ahead of taking decisive action in the name of progress. Many of the eight first-time councillors ran on doing the latter, and there was concern about regression to politics-as-usual.

“There are only two options for the City — staff either implements the policy differently or the Mayor calls an emergency Council meeting,” Ward 2 Coun. Cameron Kroetsch wrote on social media, expressing hope that the matter wouldn’t wait for a committee meeting. “It’s status quo otherwise, and that’s not OK.”

Ward 3 Coun. Nrinder Nann acknowledged the funding was “not in place soon enough to be responsive this season.”

The Hub, which can reportedly offer warmth to 20 to 25 people at a time, is also openly nightly from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Central Memorial Recreation Centre (93 West Ave. S.) will remain open for extended hours over New Year’s Day weekend. It will be open until 10 p.m. Saturday (Dec. 31), and from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Jan. 1 and Jan. 2.

In the meantime, the city’s Housing and Homelessness Dashboard says there are 5,716 households on the Access to Housing Wait List. Of those, there were 916 residing in rent-geared-to-income housing and awaiting a transfer.

Five hundred and forty-one households, or 9 per cent of the waitlist, were housed in 2021.

The dashboard lists the average market rent of a one-bedroom dwelling in Hamilton as $1,190. The most recent National Rent Report from rentals.ca says the average rent for a one-bedroom in Hamilton is $1,792.

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