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Speaking out

The housing crisis in Canada continued to weigh heavily on people this year. Homelessness is on the rise, housing is increasingly unaffordable and unavailable, and disadvantaged groups are falling further behind.

This year, the Federal Housing Advocate raised awareness on these systemic issues and amplified people’s experiences by speaking out in the media, online, and in-person.

Dignity and safety for people experiencing homelessness

Following attacks on people experiencing homelessness in August 2022, the Federal Housing Advocate issued a joint statement with the Canadian Human Rights Commission to condemn this violence as a hate crime and demand dignity, safety, and protection for people experiencing homelessness. Upholding their human right to housing and protecting them from violence is a matter of life or death.

In February 2023, the Advocate spoke out online about a planned eviction of people living in an encampment under the Ville-Marie expressway in Montreal. This news came on the heels of her visit to the encampment the week before, where she met and spoke with the residents. In her post, the Advocate urged the city and the provincial transport ministry to stop the eviction, and above all, to respect the rights of encampment residents. This issue also gained traction in the media, with community organizations and encampment residents alike highlighting the harm that an eviction would cause. The Advocate also spoke to several media outlets and highlighted that all levels of government must do more to provide adequate housing for people experiencing homelessness.

The Advocate also released a series of Tweets in February 2023 urging a halt to proposed changes by Prince George city council to create a centralized, police-monitored homeless encampment in the city at Moccasin Flats. The proposed plan would violate Indigenous rights and the human rights of people experiencing homelessness. The Advocate called on the city to explore alternative options that are in line with their human rights obligations. The Advocate visited the encampment in August during her time in British Columbia, and as a result, she also urged the city to take action to ensure that the basic needs of people experiencing homelessness are being met, including sanitation, drinking water, heat, cooling, electricity, harm reduction, health and community services, safety, and more. Finally, she highlighted that any solutions must be the result of meaningful engagement and consultation with residents.

Op-ed: We must fix Canada's National Housing Strategy. Here's how to start

On National Housing Day, November 22, 2022, a version of this story appeared in the Ottawa Citizen

If you have been downtown in any Canadian city recently, you have probably noticed the same thing I have: there are far more people living on the streets.

While this is the starkest indicator of Canada's housing crisis, there are many thousands more people who are facing the grim reality of housing insecurity. With rising rent costs, few protections against eviction, and an unforgiving housing market, the number of people in this dire situation is growing.

This month marks five years since the federal government released its 10-year, $72 billion National Housing Strategy to reverse Canada's housing and homelessness crisis. The Strategy promised to reduce core housing need and end homelessness by 2030.

Clearly, it is not working. The Auditor General's report last week adds to the growing evidence that the Strategy is far behind on its goals.

No strategy could have predicted the challenges the world has faced in the past few years. The crushing combination of the pandemic and the economic crisis has exposed the fragility of Canada's housing system. It's made rent even more unaffordable. It's pushed shelters to the breaking point. Record numbers of people are dying on our streets.

With inflation and a looming recession, things are getting worse. Many are just one accident, one illness, or one missed paycheque away from losing their home.

The number of people falling through the tattered safety net has grown in the last five years. Those facing disadvantage are falling further behind. The number of people experiencing homelessness who are First Nations, Inuit and Métis remains disproportionate.

The Strategy names priority populations, including Indigenous people, seniors, and people with disabilities—but it offers no way of measuring whether its programs are reaching the people who need it. Research shows that of the new housing units built by the two major programs of the Strategy, fewer than five percent are affordable to people in deepest need.

We need a new plan. It is time to overhaul the Strategy to correct its failings and to reflect the realities of today's world.

The National Housing Strategy belongs to everyone in Canada. We must demand that it work for us. Here is where we should start.

We must tailor the Strategy to help low-income people stay housed and cope with inflation. This means retooling the Strategy's programs to meet the specific needs of disadvantaged groups, particularly people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity.

We must provide better housing for Indigenous people, no matter where they live. The Strategy must support a for-Indigenous, by-Indigenous approach. It must give Indigenous governments the resources to respond to the housing crises in their communities.

We need to take a new approach to providing adequate housing supply. This means funding the development, repair, and acquisition of housing supply that is not-for-profit, permanently affordable, and provides community value in exchange for government investment.

And finally, the Strategy must prioritize a federal leadership role and a coordinated, all-of-government approach to involve all levels of government in solving the housing crisis.

The status quo is failing people. People who are low-income and precariously housed need solutions that keep them in their homes. More people will be forced into the cold if we do not act. More people will die on the streets this winter.

We have to do better. Housing is a fundamental human right. A revised strategy is our best chance to improve life for people facing housing insecurity and homelessness. It must keep pace with the current reality and properly address persistent failings in our housing system.

The people living on our streets do not need charity—they need their government to deliver on its commitments and human rights obligations to end homelessness.

The time is now.

Marie-Josée Houle is the Federal Housing Advocate, Canada's first housing and homelessness watchdog

In 2022–2023, the Advocate was quoted in more than 50 media stories, including radio, print and television.