Hunger strike for housing

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Each night, over 200 people sleep in the pews and floors of First United Church in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Some come in with frostbite and trench foot and are in need of immediate medical attention.

This event is repeated in city after city across the country. It is embarrassing that we have let the situation come to this state in this country. It is totally unacceptable. We need a national movement to change it now.

We are beginning a hunger strike in Vancouver. We will have new volunteers come forward each week to join the fast for a week, to support the need for a new national housing program. We will carry on the relay past the 2010 Winter Olympics and will shame the federal government in to action -- we intend to let the international community know what's happening in our city.

We also will not allow the City Engineering Department to wake people up in doorways, or allow a discriminatory ticketing regime to undermine the right to the city. We won't allow a three week international sporting event to be used as a pretext to violate the human rights and civil liberties of low-income people.

The federal government's misguided decision to eliminate the national social housing program in 1993 has had a devastating impact on the Canadian social fabric. It is a national and international human rights embarrassment where literally hundreds of people die on our streets or the effects of homelessness every year.

Canada remains one of the few wealthy nations of the world without a national poverty reduction strategy.

The National Homelessness Secretariat estimates that there are 150,000 homeless people in Canada, but most experts believe the number is between 200,000 to 300,000. Particularly, during cold and wet weather, the health and human rights implications are obviously more acute.

Additionally, 1.5 million Canadians are considered ‘housing core need' which places them at greater risk of homelessness.

As more post-secondary students graduate with larger student loans, the implications of higher rent continue to have a devastating impact early on in the careers of young Canadians.

During the October 2007 visit by UN Special Rapporteur on Housing, Miloon Kothari, he recommended a large scale building of social housing units across the country.

Canada should also make its domestic laws comply with international obligations it has committed to such as the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which has clear guidelines on the right to adequate housing. Canada will not be strong on human rights abroad, if it can't be strong on human rights within its own borders.

Canada will be receiving the final country report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing in April of 2009 at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

As Vancouver prepares to host the 2010 Winter Olympics, weak provincial tenancy legislation has created a public policy framework which allows evictions to take place through loopholes. Already 1,300 SRO rooms have already converted to other uses in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in Vancouver and there have numerous building wide evictions in the West End. The loss of these units was the basis of a complaint to the UN Human Rights Council last year.

Furthermore, there has been a doubling of homelessness in Vancouver since 2002 and aboriginal people make up more than 32 per cent of this population.

This is a completely unacceptable situation.

Vancouver's new Mayor Gregor Robertson has committed to ending homelessness by 2015 -- but he needs the commitment of senior levels of government.

Years ago, David Hulchanski from the University of Toronto called for an innovative 1 per cent solution:

1. Funding of $2 billion federally, and another $2 billion among provinces and territories.

2. Restoring and renewing national, provincial and territorial programs aimed at resolving the housing crisis and homelessness disaster.

3. Extension of the federal homelessness strategy with immediate funding for new and expanded shelter and services across the country.

Vancouver is considered one of the most livable cities in the world. All around the shores of False Creek and around the city is a ribbon of co-ops and social housing which is a great legacy of inclusiveness that is the envy of the world. They were built in the 70s and 80s. Even when the federal government cut their program, B.C. and Quebec continued to build more units in to the 90s.

We are in danger of letting the market increase the divide in our cities, without understanding the social implications and costs of homelessness. It is cheaper to house a homeless person than to cover the cost of the services they need when they are out on the street. We need action now from citizens across the country.

This is what we are fighting for -- and we intend to win.

Am Johal, a Board member with the Impact on Communities Coalition and an organizer with Vancouver Flying University, is finishing a seven-day hunger strike at noon today, and passing the baton on to Michael Byers for the next leg of the relay.

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