TORONTOTracy Heffernan climbed onto a bench in front of the Superior Court of Ontario and held up a document calling on the federal and provincial governments to stop violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The document demands that the governments create a national housing strategy to make homelessness and sub-standard housing a thing of the past.

“Homelessness and inadequate housing harm people,” said Heffernan, lawyer for the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario at a press conference Wednesday morning.

“People are harmed by hunger, reduced life expectancy and significant damage to their mental, emotional and physical health. In some cases, they die.”

Heffernan argued that the failure to provide adequate housing violates Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees everyone the right to life, liberty and security.

She said the government has also violated Section 15 of the Charter that guarantees everyone the right to live free of discrimination.

“What you see when you look at who’s homeless and underhoused you see that some groups are far more impacted than others,” said Heffernan.

Aboriginals, single mothers and people with physical and mental health disabilities.

“Studies have shown that providing people with housing rather than managing homelessness is less expensive – sometimes half as expensive – than keeping people homeless. So we’re asking the federal and provincial governments to step up to the plate to design and implement a national housing strategy.”

Jennifer Tanudjaja, 19, a single mother and one of the five applicants in the challenge, replaced Heffernan on the bench and shared her story with a crowd of reporters, advocates and supporters.

The first year Centennial College student lives with her two sons, aged three and one, in a high-rise apartment at Kipling and Finch in Toronto’s west end. She pays $998 a month in rent, the cheapest two-bedroom apartment she could find.

That’s $378 a month more than the $620 monthly shelter allowance she receives on social assistance, $63 dollars more than her total monthly social assistance cheque. That forces her to use some of her child tax benefit towards rent, the rest towards food.

“I feel stressed and worried all the time because my sons and I are in such precarious situations teetering on the edge of homelessness,” said Tanudjaja. “Each month I fear I won’t be able to pay the rent and my sons and I will end up in a shelter.”

As a child growing up in a poor family, difficulties at home finally forced Tanudjaja’s mother to sign her over to the Children’s Aid Society when she was 14. From there, she was placed in a group home, became suicidal, ran away several times and eventually ended up homeless.

Three years ago, she gave birth to her first son. In the beginning, she lived with her partner’s family. But six people in a crowded three-bedroom apartment were too much to handle. So she, her partner and the baby moved to a dilapidated one-bedroom apartment of their own. But they were always in arrears. Social assistance just wasn’t enough.

Trapped between paying the rent or feeding her child, she applied for subsidized housing. But like so many others, she was told that there was a 10-year waiting list.

At the end of 2008, her landlord filed to evict Tanudjaja when she was eight months pregnant with her second child. She now lives alone with her sons, but there is still no room in her budget for any unexpected expenses.

“If a crisis were to arise, I would be in trouble,” she said.

But if she had access to adequate subsidized housing, she wouldn’t have to constantly worry about paying the rent, buying a monthly transit, purchasing school books or putting healthy food on the table.

“A housing subsidy would allow me to concentrate on my studies so I could graduate with a career and get ahead in the world.”

That’s why Tanudjaja decided to get involved in the Charter challenge.

“There are so many others in similar or even worse case situations than me,” she said. “I hope to make a difference in their lives too.”

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.