Kaleb* was trying to get out of an abusive relationship and bad living situation. Surviving on Ontario Works, he found it impossible to find an affordable apartment in Hamilton that he could move into to escape the situation. Eventually he decided to move into a vacant Metrolinx apartment on King Street, staying there for several months, rent-free.
*Names have been changed upon request.
What’s your experience been like as a renter in Hamilton, trying to find an affordable apartment?
It’s ridiculously hard. Everything is so expensive. I get half of the amount [through Ontario Works] that it would cost to get the cheapest 1-bedroom apartment in Hamilton. Yeah, it’s stressful. There’s times when I need to leave a situation and I can’t because it costs too much. So then like if you get in a bad situation or something bad happens, you’re pretty much screwed. That sucks. It shouldn’t be like that.
And even the cheapest apartment that you will find, it’s not guaranteed to bed bug or cockroach free, it’s not guaranteed to be safe, or have the landlord take care of it. You’re guaranteed to pay that amount, with no expectations from anyone else. And that’s shitty, knowing that you might spend so much money, just to end up in a pest-infested house or apartment.
Do you want to talk about how you’ve been able to survive, what you’ve done to find housing?
I lived with someone I probably shouldn’t have for a year, and that didn’t go too well. It was a bad situation in the end. He was fine at first but in the end it was bad. And so I had to leave there but didn’t have enough to pay for rent on my own. I only had enough because we were splitting the rent and because he had been there for 15 years paying ridiculously low rent. So when I had to leave, I ended up living in a car, because I couldn’t afford anywhere. And then I was staying at a friend’s place for about a month. And then I still couldn’t afford anything.
I was living in my vehicle for a year and a half. Unable to save money, because I’m not making enough to save any money. And then finally I found this apartment on King Street. it’s in the proposed path of the LRT and the construction. I have to pay hydro still but I’m not paying rent, and I can adjust the hydro based off usage. I like it here.
What has been your impression of Metrolinx and the City of Hamilton through the LRT planning and evictions process?
Well, the LRT is a bullshit idea in the first place. I’m not sure why we need that. We have the B-Line bus. Kicking people out of their homes for something we don’t need, seems super unreasonable.
And I don’t know where all those people are going to go. If they’ve been there for a long time, they might have a grandfathered rent that may be helping them be able to afford a place. And if they get kicked out of there, where do they have to go now? It’s really upsetting. Nobody should have to feel like their living situation is at risk and nobody should have to be kicked out of their living situation because someone wants to build something that’s going to make real estate people money, make more condos. They should have had a real plan for the people before sending them out to the street.
The willingness to put so many people at risk, to hurt so many people, for the sake of a transit project—that doesn’t sound like anything I want my city to be thinking about. That is not the kind of city I want to be part of.
What would your message be to other tenants, either on King Street who were evicted by Metrolinx or tenants in general in Hamilton that are struggling?
If you’re still in your apartment along the LRT, stay there. Let the King Street Tenant organizing group know if something kicks off. Basically it is way better to stay in your home than to let them kick you out, if you’re still in it, if they haven’t already kicked you out.
In general, talk to people, talk to your neighbours. You are not the only one that’s struggling. Get together with the people that are struggling and figure out what options do we have as a united front. The more people that get together and talk, and not just talk but also get organized. I think people think oh jeez, I have all these bed bugs, all these roaches, I gotta deal with that. I bet you over half of the city of Hamilton is probably also thinking that today. So if there’s that many people who are living in poverty and facing eviction and at risk of losing their homes, then we should be able to do something about it. If that many people are having such a hard time. Talking is one thing, but how can people do more than that too? Get involved in stuff that’s already going on, if you can’t figure out what to do.
If your neighbours are getting evicted, get everyone in the community together and stand outside their door and don’t let anyone through. If someone has to go to the Landlord Tenant Board in your community and you know because you’ve talked about it as a community, then show up to the Landlord Tenant Board and get mad at the judge. Don’t let it happen.
I’ve been thinking recently….In a true democracy, every community, every street, every block would have to have meetings, once a week or once a month or whatever. People would talk about what is going on for them, what do they need from people in the direct community, not just friend groups, but the direct people around you, but the direct people around you. What do they have that they can give to you? And what do you have that you can you give to them? Not even just physical things, but what do you need and what do they need and how can we support each other in this community. I think that could go a long way for a lot of things. I was thinking about that lately from a mental health perspective, but it doesn’t just need to be for mental health. Maybe there used to be more widespread tenant organizing or community organizing. I think the world could benefit from communities getting together and having conversations, especially about things that affect people’s quality of life.
What would you say to people who need a place to stay and are curious about doing the same thing as you?
Do it at your own risk, but it’s a good option if that’s where you’re at. Have some backup spots that you know are okay. When you’re starting, you want to make sure that you look less suspicious. You can wear a high vis orange vest. Check out what screws there are on the boards that are boarding the building up. You don’t want to be seen. So use the door with the least visibility. Figure out what screwdriver or bit you would need to use. Then if you want to have no one know you are staying there, I guess you could leave the boards up. If you are staying for one night or a short period of time, just take the back board off, and then lean it up against the door so you still have access. Sometimes there will be hydro on or water, but generally there’s not. But can always bring water with you to put in the toilet to flush things down. Call the hydro company and say whatever your name is, I’m so and so, I need the hydro turned on. They might come out and check to confirm it’s occupied, so be there when they get there. Once you’re paying bills at that address, it’s a lot harder for them to kick you out. You’ll want to make sure you change the locks, because the landlord will have access otherwise. If you don’t want them coming in and out to check on it, then changing the locks is really important. Getting any other mail sent there, like bills in your name sent there.
There are a lot of empty buildings on King Street. There are a lot of empty buildings everywhere in Hamilton. Some of them have been sitting around for a long time, some of them haven’t been. The reality is those could be made into affordable housing units. All of them, why not? Like every abandoned house in Hamilton, let’s make it affordable housing. There’s so many people in Hamilton that don’t have homes. And we have enough homes sitting there waiting for people. Maybe there are some that really aren’t livable. But for most of them, I think they just say that. Like, landlords rent out apartments in worse conditions for years and years—I mean, worse conditions than these vacant buildings that city officials deem unsafe or say must be condemned. I’m not a building inspector, but it seems like most buildings are perfectly fine.
Things are way worse now for homeless people, with the pandemic. What they are doing right now is the tent cities have to be—you can’t have tents on any main streets, like most streets anywhere downtown, and they are forcing anyone who is homeless to undergo a needs assessment and if they qualify for shelter they have to go there. I don’t think that’s fair. From all reports I’ve heard, shelters are more dangerous than jails. I don’t think we should be forcing people into those situations, just because they are living on the street. If someone is living on the street and that’s okay for them right now, let them do it. Who gives a fuck? Well, obviously some people, but you know, is it just because it looks gross to you? I don’t think this person’s life’s worth is dependent on what you think of them, but it turns out that way because that’s how our society works. If something doesn’t look good or we don’t like it, we have to make it disappear. No matter if that’s a human life or not. I think there’s lots of space for using these buildings, that they want to demolish for the LRT—they’re saying they are being graffitied or broken into, so they have to tear them down. No, how about let’s open them and let people stay here for free? Let’s not even charge them anything. Let’s just let them stay here. Why do you think they are breaking in in the first place?