April 30, 2020
Hon. Chrystia Freeland, Chair, Cabinet Committee on the federal response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
Hon. Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development
OPEN LETTER RE: HUMAN RIGHTS BASED NATIONAL HOUSING STRATEGY NEEDED TO HOUSE ALL CANADIANS
Dear Deputy Prime Minister Freeland and Minister Hussen,
Canada is gripped by an unprecedented pandemic. Every single person across the country is affected by it and those who live in the margins of society are particularly vulnerable and face heightened risks. For the homeless population, the risks are glaringly apparent as they have no ability to engage in any of the safe practices recommended by medical officers.
Notwithstanding the fact that in 2019, Canada recognized that the right to adequate housing is a fundamental human right as affirmed in international human rights laws, it remains that Canada has a wide spread housing and homelessness crisis. The current COVID-19 pandemic brings to light in no uncertain terms the importance of housing for not only an individual's health, but for the overall health and safety of our communities.
The homelessness crisis is not only an affront to human rights, but also poses an enormous national public health risk. The lack of a coordinated, national strategy means that people will inevitably fall through the cracks of the patchwork efforts. This puts the individuals and the communities they live in at risk.
Nowhere is this more evident than in my riding of Vancouver East, which is one of the communities most deeply impacted by Canada’s housing and homelessness crisis. The 2019 Homeless Count conducted in the City of Vancouver identified 2,223 residents who are homeless, with 614 people living on the streets and 1,609 people living in emergency shelters, detox centers, safe houses and hospitals, with no fixed address. These numbers are in no way acceptable in itself, yet the count is considered conservative as many experiencing hidden homelessness were not identified.
Of those living unsheltered in Vancouver 62 per cent are in the Downtown Eastside, in my riding. 39 per cent of those experiencing homelessness are of Indigenous ancestry, though Indigenous people only make up two per cent of Vancouver’s population. The City of Vancouver has one of the highest per capita rates of homelessness among Canadian municipalities, higher than Toronto, Calgary, and other major metropolitan areas which are also struggling with their own homelessness and housing crises.
In the interest of public health and safety, federal and provincial health officers have told the public that they need to "stay home" and practice social distancing. People who have flu like symptoms and compromised immune systems are told to self-isolate. Aggressive hygiene practices are also recommended to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Needless to say, it is impossible for those who are homeless and those in inadequate housing to take the actions that are so vital to keeping themselves and the community healthy and safe. In my riding, those who are homeless or are inadequately housed, living in SROs with shared bathrooms and/or kitchens, or in a shelter with no barriers between sleeping cots have no means for physical distancing. Many are struggling with mental health challenges and managing addictions. All too often, individuals living on the margins of society lack access to bathroom facilities. It is all but impossible for them to engage in minimal hygiene practices let alone aggressive hygiene practices. As such, once an outbreak occurs in vulnerable communities, the effects will be devastating.
I believe that the challenges I raise are not unique to my riding.
Different municipalities and communities across the country are struggling to deal with the homelessness crisis in their own ways. Some provinces and municipalities have implemented moratoriums on evictions to prevent increasing homelessness during the pandemic, while others are looking into providing rent supplements to renter or landlords. To address the homelessness crisis, some communities are converting community and convention centers into ad hoc shelters, while others are housing people in hotel rooms.
The federal government has the responsibility to set national standards that are grounded in human rights- based principles and implement a national strategy in partnership with all levels of government so we can effectively curb the spread of the virus.
It is paramount that immediate action be taken to ensure housing is provided to those without a place to call home and to begin the groundwork to ensure that the individuals and families housed during the crisis will continue to have access to safe, secure, and affordable housing going forward.
Adopting some of the measures proposed by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, I am calling on the Federal government to:
Work in partnership with all levels of government to immediately house people who are homeless by purchasing, leasing or otherwise securing vacant units that are available for rent (short- or long-term) and/or for sale, including motels, and hotels.
Enlist community-based organizations and health authorities to ensure that adequate supports are in place to support tenants in social distancing practices. These supports include hygiene and cleaning support, food security, medication and health supports, and addiction management support, including opioid replacement therapy, overdose prevention outreach, and safe supply.
Ensure that culturally sensitive housing and support for urban and on-reserve Indigenous homeless populations.
Repurpose some of these housing assets for both short and long-term housing.
Purchase distressed and other housing assets to enhance the supply of public housing assets and introduce restrictions on the ability of institutional investors to engage in predatory purchases.
Put in place a nation-wide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the pandemic.
Impose a national freeze on rent increases during the pandemic and for a reasonable time thereafter.
Apply the standard of "rent geared to income" for individuals on fixed low income and people working low-income jobs to make ends meet, in light of all the people have lost jobs and income due to COVID-19.
Special recognition must be given to the First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities on and off reserve, in rural, remote, and urban settings. Any action taken must be led by Indigenous peoples for Indigenous peoples.
At this stage of the pandemic, the Province of British Columbia has already begun taking some action in this direction. The province has just secured hotel spaces in both Vancouver and Victoria to house those living in tents at three city parks. While these actions are highly needed and in the right direction, we know that there are still many more who remain homeless in the streets of our communities. The BC government has indicated its intent to continue securing additional hotels/motel rooms for the homeless population as interim measures in the weeks ahead. They have also committed to providing a range of supportive housing measures appropriate to the needs of the individual. Working in collaboration with non-profits and the health authority, a variety of protocols have been established, including protocols to support residents and staff. These include but are not limited to health support for people struggling with addiction issues, food security, the provision of personal protective equipment and increased cleaning services.
BC has led the way in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Similar efforts must be stepped up and applied across the country. Securing hotel rooms to house the homeless population is a viable and effective interim measure because of their high rate of vacancy in every community. For medium-and longer-term housing plans, acquisitions of assets, additional development of modular housing units, and the provision of long-term permanent housing accompanied by the necessary supportive measures is essential. This effort must be fully supported by the federal government with significant investment of resources in a true partnership with all levels of government. With regards to acquisitions of assets, the federal government must introduce restrictions in order to prevent institutional investors from engaging in predatory purchases.
In conjunction with the above measures, we must also ensure that others struggling under the weight of the financial loss as a result of the pandemic are not rendered homeless. CMHC has provided a tabulation of actions taken by provinces and territories and it had become evident that, by leaving this essential policy up to the provinces, significant inconsistencies have emerged. The need for national standards is clear. For example, a no evictions policy and a rent freeze must be standardized across the nation during this difficult time. The standard of "rent geared to income" needs to be applied, especially at a time when millions have lost their jobs due to COVID-19. It must be recognized that even with the support of Canada's Emergency Response Benefit, many are still struggling to maintain their housing due to the high cost of rent.
To address the housing and homelessness crisis in Canada now and going forward, I hope you will agree that our national housing strategy needs to be grounded in human rights principles.
Treating housing as a human right means recognizing housing as a vehicle for equality, dignity, and inclusive community rather than a commodity. It also recognizes housing as an indivisible and interdependent vehicle to realizing other human rights, such as the right to life, health, education, and employment. This means that Canada must change the way housing is currently conceived, valued, produced, and regulated.
Under the UN Guidelines for the Implementation of the Right to Adequate Housing, governments have “an obligation to take steps to the maximum of their available resources with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the right to adequate housing, by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures.”
In other words, the federal government would be failing to meet its human rights obligations to Canadians if they are not taking the measures that are within their capacity to increase resources to enhance access to housing for individuals.
To this purpose, going forward, the national housing strategy must establish clear goals and timelines, and provide adequate funding to support the achievement of those specific outcomes in a timely fashion. The strategy should provide coordination in all relevant policy areas, particularly urban planning, land regulation, taxation and finance, social benefits and services. It should establish strategies to address obstacles to the right to housing and be responsive to challenges in urban and rural areas, including climate change.
In addition, addressing the housing and homelessness issue - especially for Indigenous peoples - should be a top priority for Canada if we are to say that we are a country committed to reconciliation and human rights. There must be recognition for separate measures for the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit in rural, remote and urban settings. These measures need to be led by Indigenous peoples for indigenous peoples. Given that Canada's colonial history, there is a disproportionate number of Indigenous youths in care. The risks for Indigenous women and girls are documented in the National Inquiry for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and the lack of safe housing was identified as one of the key components to the vulnerability of Indigenous women and girls to violence. Measures dedicated to the needs of Indigenous youth, women and girls must also be recognized. Finally, there must be an independent body to ensure government accountability to their goals and timelines.
Homelessness and the housing crisis have been longstanding issues for Canada. The current pandemic clearly and desperately illustrates the need for a national strategy and national leadership to ensure that communities across Canada can simultaneously work in accordance with a coordinated plan to implement the right to housing for all Canadians. Taking this opportunity to lay the groundwork for a comprehensive and robust national housing strategy will ensure that communities across Canada will be well prepared in the case of future health and other crises and emergencies and prevent tragedies.
The COVID-19 pandemic also exposed the longstanding housing vulnerability of Canadians who are currently housed. The underlying reality is that treating housing as a commodity rather than a basic human right has led to rising housing costs and the depletion of affordable housing stocks. As a result, many Canadians are living paycheque to paycheque, and are one paycheque away from losing their homes.
The government must take the lessons from this pandemic and commit to addressing the housing vulnerabilities of people across the country. If we can take this opportunity to change our current approach to housing and lay the groundwork for a rights-based national strategy to work towards implementing adequate housing for all Canadians, we can emerge from the pandemic with a stronger, more just and resilient Canada.
Member of Parliament for Vancouver East NDP Housing for Critic
Cc: The Hon. Jean-Yves Duclos The Hon. Navdeep Singh Bains
The Hon. William Sterling Blair The Hon. Patricia Hajdu
The Hon. Mélanie Joly
The Hon. William Francis Morneau The Hon. Carla Qualtrough
The Hon. Kirsty Duncan