Homeless rights in Canada: Our address to the United Nations

Today Pivot's DJ Larkin appeared before the United Nation’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in Geneva, Switzerland, for Canada’s Sixth Periodic Review. Here's what she said:


Thank you to the Committee for the opportunity to present on behalf of the Pivot Legal Society regarding housing rights and homelessness in Canada. 

As I present this submission, it is the middle of the night across Canada and there are thousands of homeless people sleeping and sheltering in public spaces; trying to protect themselves until morning. Most of them are breaking local laws to do so.

Laws prohibiting sleeping and sheltering in public places, often called “anti-camping” laws, effectively criminalize homelessness because they prohibit basic acts of survival like laying down or sheltering ones’ self from the elements. Breaking these laws can lead to a ticket, and being unable to pay tickets can lead to involvement with the justice system.   

The harm of anti-camping laws, however, goes far beyond the possibility of a ticket. These laws empower cities across Canada to target, harass and displace homeless people, perpetuating prejudice and stigma against them and imperiling their safety and health.

Canada has not acknowledged housing as a human right and over the past two decades our federal, provincial and territorial governments have failed to adequately address Canada’s growing housing crisis. Canadian cities have been left to rely ever more on these anti-camping laws to manage the resulting visible homelessness on their streets and in their parks.

Canada has also chosen not to recognize the rights of homeless people to an adequate standard of living and to protection from discrimination. All of which has left homeless Canadians having to fight for the right to sleep under a tarp or box overnight without being ticketed, harassed, and possibly even imprisoned. That is an unacceptable state of affairs in a nation as affluent as Canada.

Sleeping under a tarp or box overnight is not adequate and is not the answer to Canada’s housing crisis, but for many it is a way to stay alive until real housing options are available.

We respectfully submit that in order to ensure progress towards the realization of economic, social and cultural rights in Canada, the first step is to recognize housing rights as legally enforceable.

We therefore ask the Committee to request of Canada commitments to:

  • Recognize a justiciable right to housing.
  • Recognize social condition, including homelessness, as a protected ground against discrimination.
  • Recognize the right of homeless people to an adequate standard of living and health.
  • Revoke anti-camping laws that criminalize and discriminate against homeless people for engaging in behaviour necessary for survival.
  • Ensure that subnational governments are aware of their obligations under the Covenant and have the knowledge and resources required to respond to the needs of homeless people in their communities.

Thank you for your consideration.

Pivot’s written submission to the UN is available here.