‘Overburdened’ Hamilton drop-in centre for homeless ordered to pay for years-old graffiti, director says

A downtown drop-in program that provides meals to Hamilton’s unhoused residents is suddenly facing an order from the city to remove all graffiti from its building within three weeks, or foot the bill.

The Hub’s executive director Jennifer Bonner said she found the order taped to the front door on Vine Street Wednesday, despite the graffiti having been there for years and with no prior warning from bylaw.

“I’m angry,” Bonner said. “Social services has been doing more for this city the last three years than anyone else. We’re seeing more and more people come through our door. We’re understaffed, overburdened, but we’re worried about graffiti on a building that serves 150 meals a night?” 

The most prominent messages, written in black on the side of the building read, “Hold on, pain ends” and “Love yourself. Someone has to.” 

The order says if the graffiti isn’t removed within three weeks, the city will carry out the work and add the costs to the property tax bill. Bonner said she’s waiting for cost estimates but doesn’t expect removing the graffiti will be cheap.

Mayor urging city to not enforce

Karl Andrus, a manager with the Hamilton Community Benefits Network, said this order is an example of city policy and processes getting “in the way of good work” and wondered why the bylaw officer didn’t first issue a warning or talk to The Hub first.

“Maybe the system should be a little more flexible when dealing with social service agencies with budgetary constraints,” Andrus said. “I truly hope that the city will work collaboratively with The Hub.” 

building with graffiti
Graffiti on the south side of The Hub has been there for years and has never been an issue, says Bonner. (Samantha Beattie/CBC)

Mayor Andrea Horwath said in a statement that she hopes the order was a mistake and enforcement won’t be pursued.

“We need to take steps to combat graffiti, but not at the expense of a hard working not-for-profit organization,” Horwath said. “I’m focused on making sure our bylaw officers are working effectively to address the backlog of issues faced by Hamilton residents, and deploying their resources to prioritize the most positive impacts for our city.”

The city recently announced it would be stepping up cleaning of the downtown area, which includes more graffiti removal. 

Money would otherwise be used for meals

The Hub opened during the COVID-19 pandemic and provides people experiencing homelessness with food, drinks, washrooms, hygiene products, harm reduction supplies and clothing and connects them to other social service providers.

It mostly relies on private donations, although some programs are funded through Ontario Trillium Foundation grants, Bonner said. The city provided about $125,000 last winter to extend The Hub’s overnight warming centre hours, but that wasn’t renewed. 

“Every single dollar spent here means someone doesn’t get a meal or a toothbrush today,” she said. “It’s just ridiculous I have to take money out of our donor money to worry about graffiti.” 

Standing outside The Hub, Bonner said there’s a number of other maintenance property issues in plain sight the city has not dealt with. The reflector strip under the stop sign at the corner of Vine and Park Streets is vandalized and has been that way for years, she said.

overgrown area and stop sign with writing on it
Bonner says she doesn’t understand why The Hub was ordered to clean up graffiti when across the street, grass and weeds are untrimmed, left, and a stop sign’s reflector strip has been left vandalized for years. (Samantha Beattie/CBC)

There’s also tall weeds and grass across the street, where her team regularly responds to possible overdoses. She said earlier this week she asked a bylaw officer to trim the vegetation, as it hides needles, glass or feces that pose a health and safety risk to staff and clients, but she’s still waiting. 

On another street, a couch on a balcony with no railing has been there for a long time, too, she said. The city’s bylaw states balconies “shall be kept free of furniture or appliances.” 

Bonner said she’s not looking to bash the city, and recognizes it’s doing “a lot of hard work” with the encampment protocol and measures to help tenants , but she is hoping for more understanding. 

“All I’m trying to do is make life a little easier every day for some of our unhoused folks,” she said.

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