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Trudeau unveils National Housing Strategy

The current Liberal government just unveiled its housing strategy and for once, I am in agreement with where Ottawa says its politics lie. Housing is a human right. I know what my activist friends believe when it comes to distinguishing housing as one of the basic human requirements, although I'm still not sure what the government means by that statement.

"Housing rights are human rights and everyone deserves a safe and affordable place to call home," and "one person on the streets in Canada is too many," Justin Trudeau said on November 22nd.

These are kind words. But suddenly stating that housing has to become a human right in Canada is fanciful, because as of right now, this right is not enshrined in our Charter of Human Rights. So there isn't a lot of muscle behind the announcement. Just a lot of smiling politicians standing behind our rock-star prime minister.

I've been to more housing rallies than I'd like to count, and have seen the timeline for Campaign 2000 come and go. I feel like I'm almost in activist fatigue, so you'll have to excuse me if I'm a bit leery.

Canada is already a signatory to the UN-backed International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which recognizes housing as a right, so does this mean Trudeau is going to follow up with real action? It's too soon to tell but demonstrators at the yearly Housing is a Human Right seemed as suspicious as I was. They're tired of waiting, too.

For those of you who don't remember Campaign 2000, the idea behind the movement was pretty simple: The elimination of poverty by the year 2000. It is now 2017. I'd like to know exactly what took so long?

When you're paying more than half your monthly income on rent, that leaves precariously little money left for food, transportation, and other basic needs. 

Trudeau's National Housing Strategy includes a $40-billion, 10-year strategy focussing on affordable housing.

One issue that the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) noted during the rally was the definition of "affordable." To me, affordability means accessibility. I'm not talking about the ability for everyone in Toronto to be a homeowner, as we've seen that disastrous strategy play out with sub-prime mortgages in the United States. I'm thinking way more basic than that. Basic as in not having to choose between buying food and paying rent. Lack of housing is a basic definition of poverty.

So what does affordable really mean?

To OCAP, "affordability has been conveniently redefined to mean at or just below average market rent, which isn't affordable to anyone who is low-income and increasingly, even middle income."

At the media scrum, the Liberals kept it tight on the actual on-the-ground workings of their plan. A lot of their answers were "to be determined." That seemed a little strange, since it's taken the various Canadian governments seventeen years to roll out this strategy. Actually, more than seventeen years. It's frustrating. Toronto has been in a perpetual housing crisis for years. Even before the year 2000.

The Liberal government has pledged to reduce the chronic shelter usage by half by the year 2026, which is a long wait for anyone who can still remember the year 2000 promise. A really long time.

Social housing has been on a downward spiral since the Chrétien Liberals eliminated new housing funding and downloaded the responsibility to the provinces 21 years ago.

An example of the plan is a $2,500 housing benefit per year that is geared to an individual as opposed to a unit of housing. This people-centered approach, plus the promise of making housing a human right, are certainly steps in the right direction.

In Toronto, homelessness only becomes an issue once a year, every year. Politicians and civil servants mulling over the issue of affordable housing has become a regular precursor to winter, because lack of affordable housing in winter leads to death.

So having housing as a fundamental right to life should help combat the death and the poverty of those individuals who just barely eke out an existence in shelters and dingy basement apartments.

Every year, we hear about how precariously full Toronto's  shelter system is. It seems that it is always running at 90 per cent capacity or higher. Which means the emergency Out of the Cold program kicks in, with people crammed into every available space that can fit a thin foam mattress. There isn't much privacy or dignity in sleeping sixty to a room, in the basement of a church. Toronto has yet to actually even raise shelter capacity, so the volunteer-run Out of the Cold program has to pick up the slack.

According to OCAP, 70 homeless people died in the first nine months of this year. Many of these people were under 50 years of age.  

OCAP also noted that it has been a hard, long process, but the City Council committee responsible for shelters recently voted unanimously to recommend to City Council that it open 1,000 new shelter beds. The same committee also voted 4-1 to call on Mayor Tory to declare a state of emergency and open up the armouries to shelter people this winter. Both measures are urgently needed, and will save lives.

The government noted that special attention will be paid to First Nation-focused housing, though the actual details to the Indigenous Housing Strategy will be unveiled at a later date. I'm not sure if this indicates a lack of a comprehensive plan or not. Does Trudeau already have a strategy? And he is just waiting for a special time to unveil it? I know Trudeau likes to position himself as the Prime Minister who helped Indigenous communities. But he has also promised that as part of this strategy, there will be a plan to stop discrimination. Again, whatever that means.

When fully implemented, the Liberal housing plan promises 530,000 households will find more secure housing when the strategy is fully implemented.

I hope by "more secure housing" Trudeau means moving people out of Out of the Cold programs and shelters, and giving even the hidden homeless a permanent solution to the housing crisis. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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