4.8 million people in this country live in poverty. At least 235,000 are homeless. Poverty and housing are closely connected – and in Canada too many people are falling through the cracks of our existing social safety net, only to experience poverty, inadequate housing, and social exclusion.
While Canada is host to some strong social programs for those experiencing poverty and housing insecurity, the problem is they are small patches over a much bigger problem of a broken system that has obscured the fact that all people in Canada have a right to an adequate standard of living – including a right to housing.
Canada’s social safety net is broken
As those with lived experience of poverty could tell you, this system fails people across the country in a number of ways, pushing them into crisis. A woman flees her abuser at home, only to live in her car when she finds emergency shelters at capacity. An elderly couple can’t access necessary social assistance programs simply because they aren’t able to fill out the form due to language and technology barriers. A young man facing skyrocketing rents in his city is forced to live rough, only to be kicked out of the park where he sleeps because of a law that bans such life-sustaining activities.
The limitations of our social safety net are failing these people. Canada is failing them. And it’s time we’re held to account.
When our social safety net fails to catch an individual, there is nowhere to go to be picked back up again. Although the rights to an adequate standard of living and housing are human rights – codified in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ratified by Canada in 1976), the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, and other international treaties – it’s virtually impossible to claim these rights. In fact, in the case Tanudjaja v. Canada, the government of Canada went so far as to argue that we can’t even discuss in a courtroom whether people in poverty can exercise their rights.
What often gets lost in the conversation is that when comparing other wealthy countries to Canada, it’s very unusual that those living in poverty have no recourse to claim their human rights. In many countries, those in poverty can access governments through an independent external review mechanism – like legal courts or other avenues – in order to hold the government to account for their obligations.
So, what does it mean to be accountable for the right to housing?
Being accountable to human rights like the right to housing, doesn’t mean the government is required to give everyone a house; instead, it requires the government to do what is considered “reasonable” to fulfill that right. For example, a reasonable action may be working with communities to ensure emergency shelter services are created, along with long-term housing solutions that are adequate to meet the cultural, service, educational and employment needs of individuals.
On the flip side, when the government is being unreasonable – for example by enacting bylaws that prohibit individuals experiencing homelessness from public spaces like parks – they are required to develop a solution that works directly with the community and respects their rights.
The good news is that there are big opportunities to create a system where we listen to these voices which have so long been ignored. We can incorporate a human rights approach into a Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy and a National Housing Strategy. In fact, for the National Housing Strategy, it seems the government of Canada is moving in this direction – what remains to be seen is whether these national strategies will genuinely utilize the United Nations framework that gives rights-bearers the tools they need to exercise their rights.
Human rights force us to start from the position that we need to repair our social safety net because we have a legal obligation to those who are the most marginalized. When a system or program just doesn’t work, it means we have to make changes. Rights require us to be genuinely accountable.
The truth is that there is no easy solution to poverty. It’s difficult. It means that we have to be responsible for each other. It takes time, patience and commitment. The solutions can’t be piecemeal or fit in a one-minute pitch that can be conveyed to a Parliamentarian in an elevator.
Human rights means that we have to start from an understanding that our system is one that is broken – and that we have a responsibility to respond to the voices that have for so long gone unheard.