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Seven steps toward a national housing plan, take two: Lights, Camera, Action!

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Today, the hotspots around homelessness are atrocious: growing wait lists for affordable housing, increased numbers of people who are homeless, shelter overcrowding, people forced to live outdoors, illness and death. A national housing strategy is the primary cure.

Using a film analogy let me tell you the "Take One!" story of housing in Canada.

When Canadian soldiers returned from the Second World War, they confronted a housing shortage. In 1945, the federal government declared Toronto an emergency shelter area, forbidding people from moving there unless they were starting a job deemed essential.

Toronto mayor Robert Saunders even put an ad in the newspaper that warned: "Acute Housing Shortage in Toronto -- do not come." It was such a desperate situation that the veterans, who believed they had a right to housing, took to the streets. They protested, they held picket signs, they demonstrated, and they actually took over empty buildings like the Hotel Vancouver and the Kildare barracks in Ottawa and squatted in them.

Franklyn Hanratty, the leader of the Ottawa protest, said, "scores of Ottawa families are living under intolerable conditions." I'm told from an interview with Mr. Hanratty's family that he didn't consider himself an activist. But I do -- he did direct action. A lot of it.

In 1946, veterans threw up a picket line around the old Hotel Vancouver. Their objective was to have it turned into a hostel. It became emergency shelter for 1200 families over the next two years.

That's what I call Housing!  Lights, Camera, Action. Take one! because it should be made into a movie. We need to know our history!

This national campaign led to empty military buildings being freed up for housing; it led to the federal agency Wartime Housing Ltd. that built 19,000 temporary rental homes over four years. It led to the creation of the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, now the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), which came to be our national housing program.

The resulting wartime housing, co-op housing, supportive housing, city public housing are evident all across Canada. Our national housing program built 650,000 units of affordable housing, housing 2 million Canadians until it was quietly killed in 1993.

Now it's time for Take two!

Today, with a new federal government we have a chance to win a new national housing program. Here are seven steps to make it happen.

1. Identify the target and hold them accountable.

It's been extraordinarily difficult to learn which federal cabinet minister will be charged with the housing portfolio. We now know it is more than one.

Ministers Bill Morneau (Finance), Amarjeet Sohi (Infrastructure and Communities), Jean-Yves Duclos (Families, Children and Social Development), Carolyn Bennett (Indigenous and Northern Affairs) all have housing in their mandate letters. Others, like Catherine McKenna (Environment and Climate Change) and Adam Vaughan are already addressing housing in their speeches.

The Liberals promised $1.45 billion a year from 2016-19 for social infrastructure, which will include housing. Let's make sure it happens but also demand more. Because we’ll need it.

2. Call homelessness what it is.

In 1998 we declared homelessness a national disaster. It still is. Tim Richter, CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, agrees. He recently wrote in the Toronto Star: "Homelessness caused by natural disaster is swift, violent and doesn't discriminate. Homelessness caused by poverty, policy and disability is also often violent but unfolds one family or individual at a time like a drip feed of misery and happens mostly to those on the margins of society. One is an act of god. The other is man-made."

He argues that if we have the financial means to deal with something like the Alberta floods (cost $6 billion) then the means to resolve homelessness is also within our reach.

3. Shine the spotlight on the problem in your community.

What do we expect after a natural disaster? Leaders tour the disaster; ensure disaster relief funds for the immediate emergency and then re-housing efforts. Demand the same for this man-made disaster.

4. Ensure housing is treated as a human right.

Leilani Farha, the United Nations Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, argues that a national housing strategy should be based on international human rights. She says that at the heart of a human rights approach is the idea that you examine systemic causes of housing disadvantage and homelessness. You look at the structures within society that are causing disadvantage, not simply the individual causes and pathologies. Every policy and fiscal decision is done through a human rights lens and places responsibility on the state to ensure the right is met. So, F35s or social housing? Corporate tax breaks or increases to social assistance rates?

5. Join, support or start a local housing advocacy group and ensure it is part of a national network such as the housing4all.ca group.

6. Keep up the actions for wins.

You know the drill: marches, rallies, press conferences, disaster tours, letter-writing, op-eds, petitions, film, social media, etc.

7. Support the emergency shelter efforts for Syrian Refugees.

There is a growing inventory of facilities (hospitals, empty school, military sites) that will be used for emergency shelter. Refugees will transition into more permanent housing. Advocate for your community to hold onto those properties and ensure they are transformed into social housing.

We've done it in the past. We can do it again.


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Graphic credit: Dave Meslin  

Image credit: TDRC archives


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