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Budgets ignore the housing disaster but so do advocacy groups

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As Citizens for Public Justice wrote in their response to the federal budget this week: "Budgets are about choices. They let us know what our political leaders think is important."

They also reveal to us what our non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and many unions think is important. In their responses I mostly read platitudes: "We commend the government," "We are pleased to hear," "We welcome the commitment," "We are encouraged to see."

I was hard pressed to find the words "new affordable housing, national housing program, social housing repairs, homelessness, First Nations housing," in their media releases and responses to the federal or Ontario budget this past week. Mostly their analyses and critiques focused on jobs, child poverty, health care, childcare, retirement security -- all worthy social issues for sure but hard to accomplish without safe, affordable homes.

There are a few notable exceptions to the housing silence.

Kudos to Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde who didn't hold back in his response. In the AFN media release after the federal budget he pointed to a number of conditions on 120 First Nations communities including over-crowded housing and pointed to the need for more than 100,000 new housing units on-reserves. That's 100,000!

Cut to the sixth paragraph in Canada Without Poverty's media release: "Canada Without Poverty was satisfied to see funding for social housing continue, however there were many initiative and programs that we would have hoped to have seen in this budget. Including to develop a coordinated National Housing Strategy…" There -- they said it!

Sure, the federal budget threw some scraps of housing at us: federally a new Home Accessibility Tax Credit, an annual investment of $1.7 billion for the next four years to support 570,000 households that depend on social housing support but with vagueness on how the monies can be used -- maybe rent supplements?

In Ontario, the only voice of concise sanity was John Clarke and OCAP who rightly declared the budget an austerity budget that will worsen poverty and ultimately homelessness. The budget document is full of re-announcements. Ontario’s Expert Advisory Panel on Homelessness has been given the task of advising on a provincial definition of homelessness, improved data collection and measures to prevent and end homelessness. The budget also promises that the government will review its Long-Term Affordable Housing Strategy.

One would think there was no problem. We need to remember that Canada has witnessed historic grassroots initiatives in the struggle to bring back the national housing program that was killed by both the federal Conservative and Liberal governments in the 1990s. In 1998, in response to horrific national conditions, Toronto Disaster Relief Committee declared homelessness to be a national disaster. Across the country local coalitions and advocacy groups sprung up and began organizing. The subsequent federal homelessness program was a clear attempt by the government to deal with exploding homelessness -- it just didn't do the necessary housing piece.

November 22 is now recognized across the country as National Housing Day, marking the day that the Federation of Canadian Municipalities essentially signed on to the campaign that homelessness was a national disaster.

In 2007 Miloon Kothari, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, toured Canada meeting with grassroots groups including homeless children in Laura Sky's films Home Safe Calgary and Home Safe Toronto that I produced. Kothari's mission report to Canada noted, "Canada is one of the few countries in the world without a national housing strategy." He also reminded us that the UN's Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights had already called upon Canada’s "federal, provincial and territorial governments to address homelessness and inadequate housing as national emergency."

Why the silence on housing this week? Well for one think Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) began doing investigations of not-for-profits. Remember CRA's famous line that charitable groups can alleviate poverty, just not prevent it? The result: advocacy chill. Secondly, the American based Housing First ideology and program was imported into Canada, essentially stifling social movements and the result is again advocacy chill. How is Housing First working? Not so well.

So here we are today with a housing emergency, disaster, crisis, catastrophe and human rights violation. Let's call it what it is and get it on the agenda for the federal election!


Image: Dave Meslin, previously created for the Cathy Crowe newsletter in 2007

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