Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a visible rise in encampments across Canada. Housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable and inaccessible. People are losing their livelihoods and their homes. Many social services and shelters are at maximum capacity. More people than ever before are having to live in tents or informal shelters to survive. Many have nowhere else to go.
Last year, we continued to speak out and drive action on this issue to ensure that the rights and dignity of encampment residents are respected and upheld by decision-makers at all levels.
On February 23, 2023, the Federal Housing Advocate launched a formal review of encampments in Canada, which have become a human rights crisis in cities across the country.
Although courts and human rights bodies are increasingly recognizing unsheltered homelessness as a human rights issue, people living in encampments are in some of the most vulnerable circumstances in our society. Their dignity and rights are frequently ignored. They face harassment and violence from police, bylaw officers, and the public. Most do not have access to basic services like clean water or heat. Some have suffered harm or have died as a result of exposure, fire, overdose, and other threats to life and safety.
As a result, the Advocate is very concerned that some governments are not taking the necessary steps to protect people experiencing homelessness, particularly during severe weather. Dismantling encampments during the winter puts people's health and their lives at stake. This is a serious violation of human rights.
All levels of government have an obligation to end this crisis. The conditions in encampments, coupled with the underlying failure of governments at all levels to ensure people can access adequate housing, are a violation of fundamental human rights, including the human right to housing.
With this in mind, the Advocate has launched a formal review into this systemic housing issue. The Advocate's review will focus on systemic solutions to address the factors that lead to encampments, as well as the daily struggles of the people who live there. At the conclusion of the review, the Advocate will submit her findings and recommendations to the federal Minister responsible for housing.
The Advocate's review will include testimony from people with lived experience. Anyone who has lived in an encampment can contribute to the review by making a submission to the Advocate.
This review will provide opportunities to engage with rights-holders, duty-bearers and other stakeholders to better understand the systemic issues and identify practical human rights-based solutions. The review will take place over six to nine months, and the final report will document the Advocate’s finding and recommendations to the Minister responsible for housing.
The recommendations will include measures to:
- Protect the fundamental right to adequate housing and other human rights for encampment residents and those at risk of homelessness, particularly those who are Indigenous and those who are members of disadvantaged groups; and
- Provide sufficient supports to allow those living in homeless encampments to transition successfully into long-term and appropriate housing situations that respect their dignity, autonomy and privacy.
Canada must do better at meeting people's vital needs for shelter and safety. Responses to encampments must centre on people's dignity and their human rights, including their right to adequate housing.
Research and engagement
The Advocate’s review builds on a series of research reports on homeless encampments released on December 8, 2022, that confirm a human rights crisis is unfolding in cities across Canada.
These reports provide critical information on the emerging issue of encampments in five regions of Canada. They also confirm that a punitive approach to encampments is failing. Tearing down encampments is unsafe and can amount to forced eviction, which is a serious violation of human rights. The researchers note that this approach does not address the underlying conditions that have led to the growth of encampments in the first place, and it does not respect the rights or increase the safety or housing security of encampment residents. Critically, a punitive approach also removes choice from encampment residents and destroys the mutual aid and community connections they have built to care for one another within a broken system.
Alongside this in-depth research, the Advocate engaged with a variety of organizations and stakeholders on the topic of encampments, including:
- A partnership with The SHIFT to engage encampment residents to raise awareness about their human rights and the role of the Federal Housing Advocate;
- A webinar organized with the Université de Montréal with the researchers on December 2nd to share the research findings;
- Expressions of concern and meetings with municipal leaders to highlight their human rights obligations when it comes to encampments;
- Engagement with the Reaching Home program at Infrastructure Canada to learn more about current federal measures to address the human rights dimension of homeless
- Encampments; and
- Participation in a workshop entitled Habiter la rue : repenser notre réponse à l’itinérance at the Archives nationales du Québec à Montréal.
This engagement and research will help decision-makers take action to better support encampment residents and uphold their fundamental human rights and human right to housing.
Recommendations VII – Encampments
Governments and decision-makers at all levels must centre human rights and the right to housing in their approaches to encampments. The reports recommend five key areas where Canada must do better to uphold the rights of encampment residents:
- Stop the use of policing and law enforcement as a response to encampments.
- Provide funding and services at all levels of government—to support municipalities that are facing the disproportionate impact of addressing the existence of encampments, and to invest in short and long-term housing options and supports for encampment residents.
- Ensure the meaningful participation of encampment residents in decisions that affect them.
- Recognize the distinct rights of Indigenous Peoples and include them in the development of policy approaches to encampments.
- Address the conditions within encampments and provide access to basic
Detailed recommendations are available in Annex A.