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Housing should be a human right and so should shelter

A protest banner with words Housing Shelter Safe Space Now

Canadians might be shocked to learn that they have no right to shelter, no safety net should they or their loved ones become homeless.

Domestic law in Canada does not recognize the right to housing. For years, housing advocates and human rights experts have pointed out that Canada has signed and ratified numerous international human rights covenants honouring the right to adequate housing. Yet the right to housing is not enshrined in any piece of legislation in Canada, not even the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Canada's failure to meet its international obligations means that more than 235,000 people across the country will experience homelessness this year. There is well documented evidence of increased ill health and higher mortality rates for people who remain inadequately housed. For example, the City of Toronto reports that in 2017 the median age of death (the only official statistic available) for a homeless person in Toronto was 48 years, whereas the average life expectancy in the city is 81 years for males and 85 years for females.

In recent years, in response to legal and civic advocacy, there is renewed hope that the federal government's National Housing Strategy will include a rights-based approach. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation is currently conducting a national consultation on a rights-based approach to housing.

While this is good news, a catastrophe continues to unfold in our towns and cities. The emergency shelters we have are essentially full. According to the Toronto 2018 Operating Budget, the average occupancy rate of homeless shelters in Toronto was 95 percent in 2017 and is expected to increase to 97 percent by the end of 2018. In the absence of a national housing program, homeless numbers escalate, and those who cannot find shelter live on sidewalks, in ravines and parks, or under bridges.

Municipal governments, which oversee public health, shelter, and emergency management departments, do not have a mandate to ensure every citizen in need can access a shelter bed. While cities do periodically open temporary shelters in community centres after ice storms, power outages, fires, or floods, there is no comparable effort to meet the shelter needs of people who become homeless for other reasons.

In the absence of right-to-shelter legislation and financial support from senior levels of government, shelter expansion is considered less important than expansions to transit and the police force. Furthermore, the federal and provincial "Housing First" approach, which prioritizes funding efforts to rapidly house chronically homeless people or those with disabling conditions, has tied the hands of municipalities, preventing them from allocating necessary funding to shelters.

Municipalities are forced to respond to mass homelessness in haste, with no capacity to stabilize and support vulnerable people or develop best-practice models. Initiatives have for the most part been reactions to appeals from advocates, inquests, media reports, or tragedies such as clusters of homeless deaths or disease outbreaks.

The responses are usually bandaid fixes, such as calling extreme cold or heat alerts that trigger the opening of warming or cooling centres. The underlying assumption is that people qualify for emergency shelter in weather emergencies, but not at other times, even though close to 7,000 individuals, on average, stayed in a homeless shelter, motel, overnight drop-in, or respite centre as recently as July 2018.

For 31 years, the faith sector has operated winter-only emergency shelters in the basements and gymnasiums of churches and synagogues in Toronto (in an informal program known as Out of the Cold). These are not real shelters. There are mats instead of beds, no showers, and seldom enough washrooms. To make matters worse, people must move nightly from one site to another. Yet the City has never developed a plan to phase out this program and replace it with real shelters that employ professional staff and maintain appropriate standards. In 2018, the City asked faith groups to stay open through the spring due to the demand. This reliance on the charitable sector to provide a social service is replicated across the country.

In Toronto, after protests in 2015 that women's shelters were full and that without shelter, homeless women were vulnerable to sexual assaults, two drop-in programs were given city funding to operate as 24-hour overnight drop-ins for women. Women, some of them seniors, sleep on mats on the floor in these places, unless they are lucky enough to get one of the few recliner chairs for the night. Three years later, the City has only just acquired a new property to open as a shelter for women.

Cities have increasingly been forced to open winter emergency overflow centres. These meagre offerings never meet the emergency management standards seen in shelters that open after ice storms or power outages. In the winter of 2017-2018, the need in Toronto was so great that eight respite/warming centres opened, including a federal armoury.

When the need did not dissipate, the City was forced to keep the sites open through the summer using empty ice rinks, reminiscent of post Hurricane Katrina scenes in New Orleans. Most of these sites do not meet the United Nations Standards for refugee camps. Families and children have long been relegated to motels, and this year Toronto extended family shelter for refugees into college residences, which are available only during the summer.

Some may argue that homelessness prevention should be the priority. But for people who are homeless right now, it's too late for prevention. While municipalities wait for affordable housing money, they must accept that shelter is a human right. Until the country sees massive affordable housing construction, cities must fund and open shelters.

Municipal revenue tools could include property taxes, taxes from hotels and Airbnbs, a levy on new condominium construction, or a residential vacancy tax, to name a few options. Municipalities must also lobby the Province for a better funding formula for shelter operations and demand that the provincial government offer some of its surplus properties for shelter.

If not, the future will be one of tent cities, or squatter camps, or one in which families with children live on the street. Which future would Torontonians prefer?

Photo: Cathy Crowe

This article was prepared for the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance's municipal election series.

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