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“home is the comfiest place to be” -Winnie the Pooh.
Home. What does it mean to you?
If you have the opportunity, pick up any child’s book and it will tell you the answer. Or consider the words of this young boy in the film Home Safe Toronto who told Miloon Kothari, the UN Rapporteur on Adequate Housing what home means to him:
“When you have a home, it’s exactly like a protection, sort of like a force field from stuff that are dangerous. So, sometimes, when you are homeless…if you know that you’re getting a decent home and you’re going there soon, you kind of get overwhelmed with happiness and that’s what a lot of people want now.”
There are two indisputable rights related to home.
One is that there is a right to housing. The second is that, should personal, environmental, or economic crisis take away your right to housing, you have the right to safe and adequate emergency shelter.
In the academic and intelligentsia world of people and organizations committed to ‘housing for all’ there is a well-developed strategic push to a rights-based approach to housing.
The Advocacy Centre for Tenants in Ontario (ACTO) is a case in point.
“The right to housing is more than simply the right to shelter. Housing is not a commodity. It is a fundamental human right. Everyone should have a right to safe, adequate, and affordable housing,” reads a statement from ACTO.
ACTO’s advocacy has included global work. In 2016 they travelled to Geneva where lawyer Kenneth Hale and Michael Creek, a prominent advocate with lived experience, made the case to the UN Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights on the urgent need for justice on the crisis of homelessness in Canada and the need for the state to recognize housing as a human right.
On the national front ACTO led a group of applicants and served a legal notice on the provincial and federal governments. Their 10,000 pages of evidence demonstrated that governments’ action and inaction violated not only several international treaties and covenants to which Canada is a party, but also violated two sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms: section 7, the right to life, liberty and security, and section 15, the right not to be discriminated against on the basis, among others, of race, gender, family status and physical or mental disability.
The case was crushed when the Ontario Superior Court dismissed their Charter challenge in 2013.
ACTO continues to fight locally for this right utilizing public forums, rallies, submissions to government bodies, a coroners’ inquest, even joining legal action against the City of Toronto during the pandemic.
There are notable steps forward in the campaign for a right to housing thanks to the work of ACTO and people like David Hulchanski, Bruce Porter, Leilani Farha and Emily Paradis among others.
In 2017 the federal government announced a national housing strategy.
In 2019 Bill C-97 passed the National Housing Strategy Act which includes the right to housing in law.
In February 2022 the federal government appointed Marie-Josée Houle as the country’s first Federal Housing Advocate.
You will have noticed there has not exactly been a building boom in social housing.
Five years in the federal Auditor General reported numerous problems with the National Housing Strategy including the construction of non-affordable rental housing and minimal accountability to reduce chronic homelessness 50 per cent by the 2027–28 fiscal year.
The second right, the right for shelter has been a long and brutal struggle bookmarked by the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee’s (TDRC) declaration that homelessness was a national disaster in 1998 and memorial services held across the country. While not named as a rights-based campaign, it inherently has been exactly that.
Along with TDRC, groups like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and Le Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU) and city-based networks in Edmonton, Vancouver, Halifax, and Ottawa waged robust and passionate campaigns for shelter. These included inquiries, rallies and marches, testimony to government bodies, occupations, even civil disobedience such as bringing housing into Tent City in Toronto.
In the absence of a national housing program (as opposed to ‘strategy’), homelessness has reached the level of a public health emergency across the country.
Toronto’s Board of Health passed a motion to declare homelessness a public health emergency and open additional 24/7 respite centres. However, the effort was defeated at City Council on what was the last day of John Tory’s reign as mayor.
There is no right to shelter, in law or municipal practice in Canada.
Even a global pandemic did not motivate a response from federal, provincial, or municipal governments to provide funding to fast-track people from shelter or outdoors into safe housing. Instead, there were dribbles of federal money through the Rapid Housing Initiative that resulted in modular housing units, which mostly ghettoize unhoused people.
Furthering concerns about the use of National Housing Strategy dollars, Gaetan Heroux has written in rabble about at least one questionable use of federal COVID housing funds to purchase a building from a developer.
The pandemic laid bare municipal governments’ intransigence by refusing to provide the most basic public health measures for those displaced by eviction or full shelters: public washrooms, fountains turned on in parks, water delivery and garbage pick-up at encampments. Beyond pure neglect was the vile and violent nature of encampment evictions by city officials, unionized civic employees and police in multiple jurisdictions. We all live in Displacement City.
Archaic shelter practices worsened and dehumanized people including seniors, people with disabilities, women, trans individuals, and families with children: bunk beds for 50–60-year-olds (as if they are at camp), families with children forced to sleep in program offices in shelters (and remember for a long period of time in the pandemic schools were closed), no gender separation or privacy in congregate settings. The list goes on.
The ’regular’ shelter system remains inadequately resourced and archaic. A second and lower tier of shelter, or respites that are usually congregate spaces, does not meet UN Standards for Refugee Camps. A third tier, the warming and cooling centres are unambitious efforts that purport to provide shelter. Toronto is poised to bring the volunteer faith based Out of the Cold program (shuttered during the pandemic) back, lowering the bar further – a perfect example of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine metaphor.
The recent campaign in Toronto for more 24/7 respite sites further exposed the malevolence of both politicians, six figure bureaucrats and a super-powered mayor.
The evidence of need is overwhelming: shelters running at 99 per cent capacity, over 100 people per day turned away by the city’s intake line, hundreds living in encampments, warming centres operating at capacity, displaced people seeking refuge in emergency rooms or on public transit.
Everyone can see the problem. It’s a post-apocalyptic scene.
The biggest mobilization of citizens I’ve ever witnessed on this issue took place when emergency room doctors spoke out, thousands of people signed petitions, a faith-based social justice group Stone Soup Network was born and city council chambers were filled for budget day with an organically boisterous crowd.
While Toronto city council voted homelessness was not a public health emergency and there was no need for an additional 24/7 respite, the mobilization forced city council to include funds in the budget for a 24/7 site which is now operating, albeit in an inadequate facility at Metro Hall, the former seat of Metro government. It has no showers, no special comforting amenities. It’s just a room and some cots and it is full.
Over 20 years ago, when I was particularly crushed by the news of yet another homeless person’s death, I spoke to TV reporters at Metro Hall and without thinking said “What do we have to do to get action, bring the body here?”
I was reminded of that when I watched the movie Till, based on the true story of the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. In the film, Mamie Till-Bradley displays the mutilated body of her murdered son Emmett to the media and public to show the truth and the hate of racism that had killed her son.
20 years later Canada’s policy disgrace of homelessness and housing is visible to all.
Many call that social murder.
I repeat: What do we have to do to get action?
Writer Larry Scanlan answers that question in an op-ed he wrote: “The simple fact is that more of us have to care about the suffering of others for these catastrophic circumstances to change. Where is the groundswell of outrage and anger, the holding of politicians’ feet to the fire?”