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Chief says increase in calls around Hamilton’s encampments prior to Woodlands fire – Hamilton

Firefighters battle multiple-alarm blaze near encampment in Hamilton park - Hamilton
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As investigators seek the cause of a devastating fire at a washroom facility in Hamilton, Ont. park, the city’s fire chief admits they’ve stepped up safety messaging with encampment outreach teams amid an increase in response calls.

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Chief Dave Cunliffe says Hamilton Fire has dealt with a total of 43 calls since early November with 23 of them connected with open-air burning complaints.

“We also had a couple of medical calls we went through … we had 18 of those 43 calls where we actually were responding to combustibles being on fire in the area,” Cunliffe revealed.

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He says the trend is concerning and on numerous occasions, they’ve had to clue in encampment residents about the city’s open-air fire ban that prohibits that burning in urban areas of the city.

The cause of Tuesday’s blaze is still not confirmed but Cunliffe says it started on the exterior of the building housing the public washroom and that “combustibles” connected to the structure “totally burned up.”

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“We’re not able to determine a single source of what that may have been in terms of that cause,” he elaborated.

A spokesperson for the city couldn’t confirm two individuals firefighters helped out of the structure were residents of a nearby encampment, but did confirm they were aware of one tent located near the washrooms at Woodlands Park.


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They also said the pair received help during the blaze with a “housing-focused” street outreach team offering supports including the replacement of items that were lost in the fire.

Municipal law enforcement did confirm trespass orders were handed out for “non-compliant” settlements in October and had been working with individuals to seek compliance within the city’s protocols, limiting the number of tents allowed and how close they can be to city and private property.

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However, some notices expired on Oct. 8 and cases were turned over to Hamilton Police (HPS).

Police spokesperson Jackie Penman said they had been working with city teams to find suitable housing for one person at the Woodlands site with mobility issues.

Penman said a Rapid Intervention Support Team (RIST) confirmed that individual was staying with a friend over the past week and is not believed to have been at Woodlands Park Tuesday.

Shooting, stabbing in Woodlands Park add to safety concerns

Aside from this week’s fire, Woodlands Park has had its share of incidents in recent months including a stabbing in July and shooting in August, believed to be connected with the encampments.

Ward 8 Coun. John-Paul Danko says Tuesday’s fire shows the current lack of “common understanding” with the city’s protocol and “what is acceptable and what’s not.”

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He suggests police are in an “impossible situation” when it comes to enforcement since they’re continuously “under the microscope and judged harshly” if they have to go in and physically remove occupants.

“I think as a community, when we see the result of this hands-off approach, we need to be a little bit more critical or have a clear expectation of when there is a health and safety issue that it is addressed and this is how it’s going to be addressed,” Danko explained.

Cunliffe hopes a campaign to instill fire safety messages on encampment residents via outreach teams will reduce calls for firefighters through the winter.

Keeping shelters at least “three big steps away” from each other, cleaning areas outside of tents and taking the city up on its 10 p.m. to 6 a.m warming bus program are key measures they’ve been passing on.

“The other big things are don’t ever …  smoke inside your tents or shelters … and be cautious of the use of propane or butane or gas or other flammable items when you’re around in the shelter area or the tents,” he said.

Much of Hamilton’s shelter system still at capacity

Hamilton’s Homelessness and Housing Support Division says it’s still experiencing pressures within the shelter system and continues to seek opportunities to add additional emergency shelter spaces.

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Currently, the city’s winter strategy employs three permanent shelters and one temporary outlet accommodating single women, three for single men, a youth shelter and a family emergency shelter.

Division manager Rob Mastroianni says typically those are running at capacity on any given night despite the recent warm weather.

“It is beneficial that we haven’t had cold and other weather events, but that doesn’t mean we’re not continuing to explore options and try to look at improving capacity,” Mastroianni said.

He says overflow placements for families continue through a hotel overflow program and that violence against women shelters operate within the city of Hamilton through a different ministry.

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