Homeless encampments in Canada are on the rise. Experts urge ‘Housing First’ approach

Click to play video: 'AG: Government unsure if homelessness measures are helping'
AG: Government unsure if homelessness measures are helping
The latest report from Auditor General Karen Hogan says the federal government isn't sure whether efforts to combat homelessness are working. Eric Sorensen explains why there's a lack of clarity, and how Hogan also raises concerns about the lack of help preparing Indigenous communities for emergencies – Nov 15, 2022

Homeless encampments are “visibly rising” in Canada, according to the Canadian Human Rights Commission — and to address this, a “Housing First” approach is needed from all levels of government, be it federal, provincial or municipal, experts say.

The “Housing First” approach identifies the right to housing as the first and foremost need of people experiencing homelessness. Needs such as childcare, drug addiction or medical requirements come after an individual has been housed, Leilani Farha, the global director of The Shift, an international initiative that advocates for the right to housing, told Global News.

“Depending on what a person’s needs are, the government then connects (them) with reliable services and supports so that they can live an autonomous life,” said Farha, who is based in Ottawa.

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Most of Canada’s 25 most populous municipalities have experienced at least one encampment since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, according to a report commissioned by the Office of the Federal Housing Advocate. The report also noted that Canada lacks comprehensive data on encampments.

In Canada, more than 235,000 people experience homelessness in any given year, and 25,000 to 35,000 people may be experiencing homelessness on any given night, Statistics Canada stated

Take the city of Toronto as an example, approximately 7,347 people experience homelessness each night in Toronto, according to the 2021 Street Needs Assessment. During the pandemic, there was a significant increase in encampments across the City of Toronto in 2020.

However, the federal government’s Reaching Home program has prevented over 62,000 people from becoming homeless and placed nearly 32,000 people experiencing homelessness into housing, Infrastructure Canada said in an emailed statement to Global News.

The program aims to reduce chronic homelessness by 50 per cent by 2028 by providing federal dollars to 64 designated communities (urban centres), the three territorial capitals, 30 Indigenous communities and rural and remote communities across Canada, the statement said.

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“To build on this progress, the federal government has announced that funding for Reaching Home is nearly doubling to close to $4 billion over nine years.”

“This includes close to $700 million to support the sector’s response to COVID-19, as well as efforts in preventing and reducing homelessness across the country,” it added.

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Click to play video: 'Housing advocate slams B.C.’s plan for homeless'
Housing advocate slams B.C.’s plan for homeless

While the federal government’s commitment to end homelessness is a really important step, Farha says there are “gaps between dollars being spent” and actual actions being taken to solve the issue.

In a November report, auditor general Karen Hogan said it is unclear whether the federal government’s initiatives are actually working.

No organization has taken the lead on the federal government’s goal of reducing chronic homelessness by 50 per cent by 2028, said Hogan.

On Dec. 8, the Canadian Human Rights Commission called homeless encampments in Canada a human rights crisis, adding that “a punitive approach to encampments is failing.”

Click to play video: 'Regina’s tent encampment burned down, no reported injuries'
Regina’s tent encampment burned down, no reported injuries

The issue with homeless encampments cannot simply be solved by putting resources into shelters, as it is not “a viable alternative” for many people experiencing homelessness, said Farha.

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She says there are many homeless people who don’t want to go to shelters because of rules — many don’t allow pets, drugs or alcohol; some don’t allow men and women to stay together.

In addition, the shelter system is constantly above capacity, especially during winter. Farha says such shelters are a “fast-track” option that don’t provide any long-term solutions.

There are other concerns as well.

“We have an overrepresentation of Indigenous Peoples living in homeless encampments and many of them have said to me explicitly, ‘We do not want to live in shelters. Shelters replicate the colonial residential school system,'” Farha said.

“We’re asking people who are living in shelters to live by a whole set of rules that those of us who are housed could never live by,” said Farha.

The ‘Housing First’ approach is proven to be able to reduce chronic homelessness significantly — it addresses the root cause and focuses on “recovery,” Jino Distasio, a geography professor at the University of Winnipeg, told Global News.

“At the end of the day, what we want to see is more Canadians not only get into housing but be able to maintain that housing over an extended period,” said Distasio.

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“We want to close the revolving door to homelessness and Housing First is really one of the only evidence-based solutions that’s been used globally to successfully reduce chronic homelessness among those in which normal programs just have not been working.”

Farah says the “Housing First” approach is working in Finland, where shelters are converted into long-term affordable housing.

Distasio says he thinks the federal government on its own “doesn’t have the power or ability to address in a meaningful way the challenges that are facing Canadian cities.”

“In my view, I think what really the challenge is, is getting the funding directly into the hands of community-based organizations that have the skills and expertise, along with the local plans to address complex issues that face a range of Canadian cities,” he said.

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