Canada urgently needs national housing program, say advocates

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The federal budget is set to be released this spring by the new Liberal government and on the minds of many is a glaring issue that has been missing for over two decades: a national housing program.

Over 200,000 Canadians experience homelessness annually, and 3.3 million Canadian households are considered "precarious," meaning they are unaffordable, below standards or overcrowded. Nearly 20 per cent of households experience significant struggles with affordability and the United Nations has officially declared the lack of a housing strategy in Canada to be a "national emergency."

That's right: in one of the most affluent countries in the world, we have a homelessness emergency.

Leilani Farha, Executive Director of Canada Without Poverty and UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing advocates for a national housing program that sees housing as a basic human right, a declaration that would influence all decisions at the federal level as a result.

"Canada has been told by the UN on more than one occasion what the right to adequate housing means in the context of Canada and what has to happen to ensure that everyone is enjoying the right to housing," she says.

So, if Canada were to implement a national housing program, where would it begin?

Earlier this month, the Liberal government announced that it will conduct a nation-wide homeless count. While acquiring data such as this appears to be a promising first step, housing advocates suggest that it misses several important elements.

"The homeless count gives you an indication at that particular time period on what's going on, but it's only one indication," says Libby Davies, former NDP MP for B.C.'s Vancouver East riding. "What needs to be understood is that the housing crisis is much more complex."

Both Davies and Farha point out that homelessness includes those who might be couch surfing, living in their car or staying with family members.

"Homelessness is very visible in some ways, but homelessness also includes people who live in very precarious housing situations," says Davies. "They may not necessarily be on the street and they may not necessarily be in a shelter, but they can still be homeless because they don't have any security of tenure, they don't have any stable housing environment."

As a result, Farha suggests the government should implement a tracking system that includes qualitative elements by interviewing both the visibly and invisibly homeless to understand the systemic cause for their lack of housing.

Even with these measurements, she cautions against remaining in the information-gathering phase.

"One of the things that worries me about measurement is that we might get sidetracked and stall," she says.

Instead, Davies calls for a national housing program that commits to moving quickly.

"[The government has] to show that they are willing to move quickly to make an investment in housing but they also need to be clear that it's going to be sustainable for the long term," she says.

Ensuring this sustainability would require implementing goals, timelines and mechanisms for monitoring, both she and Farha suggest.

At the ground level, Jean Swanson, anti-poverty activist in Vancouver says the government needs to commit to building out-of-market, social housing that low-income people can afford. She also comments that many of the discussions surrounding lofty real estate price tags in cities, specifically Vancouver, tend to neglect the most vulnerable.

"Poor people who can't afford housing are being lost in the discussion," she says. "As a result homelessness is going up."

Swanson also points to the problem of "social mix" housing that includes a requirement of social housing in one third of a building's units. While these projects -- most commonly seen in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside -- might appear to be a viable, middle-ground solution, Swanson says that it means development of affordable units is extremely limited and the needs of low-income residents aren't being met.

While these are the needs in Vancouver, communities across the country struggle with unique situations of housing affordability and availability. It's this diversity that has led Cathy Crowe, street nurse and housing activist in Toronto, to suggest it's not simply a collection of housing strategies that Canada needs, but a comprehensive, overarching housing program -- in the same way that we have a national health-care program. This would help the country avoid, as she calls it, a "patchwork quilt" of solutions across the country.

Crowe also criticizes the government's current strategy of "Housing First" which strives to place visibly homeless individuals who meet certain criteria into housing -- then offering other supports if possible.

"Housing First is a detour. It's smoke and mirrors," she says. "It allows people to think that something is being done about homelessness in the absence of a housing program."

With all these factors in mind there is no question that the task of creating an effective, nation-wide housing program is no small task. Yet Davies points out that there is an exceptional amount of expertise and knowledge on the issue across the country.

"The potential and the capacity is huge. It's there; it's waiting to be unleashed," she says. "The problem has been a lack of a national program to tie it together and to provide the budgetary supports. We have this tremendous creativity and ideas on a local level…it just needs to be scaled up to a national level."


Alyse Kotyk is a Vancouver-based writer and editor with a passion for social justice and storytelling. She studied English Literature and Global Development at Queen's University and is excited by media that digs deep, asks questions and shares narratives. Alyse was the Editor of Servants Quarters and has written for the Queen's News Centre, Quietly Media and the Vancouver Observer. She is now Rabble's News Intern.

Photo: flickr/ Caelie_Frampton

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