Time for Canada to recognize the rights of homeless

Canada has long maintained that it’s a standard-bearer for human rights internationally, a dominant myth that many of us hold to be true. A report from the United Nations released this month throws cold water on that notion, however. The international body has criticized Canada for failing to meet many of its international obligations to protect vulnerable Canadians. They have also outlined how Canada can, once again, become a human rights leader.

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The report, written by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights following its 10-year review of Canada’s compliance with the International Covenant that it signed in 1976, expresses particular concern about the persistent housing crisis in this country. Ten years ago, that same committee referred to Canada’s housing and homelessness crisis as a “national emergency”, and yet the crisis continues unabated.

In a given year, an estimated 235,000 people experience homelessness in Canada. Thousands of them resort to sheltering and sleeping in public spaces to survive, trying to protect themselves until morning. Most of them are breaking municipal laws to do so.

Cities across Canada engage in ticketing, harassment, and displacement tactics that marginalize homeless people for engaging in acts of basic survival such as sleeping or setting up a tent in a park.

Anti-camping laws prohibiting sleeping and sheltering in public places 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 unpaid tickets can lead to involvement with the justice system.

The harm of anti-camping laws, however, goes well beyond the possibility of a ticket. These laws empower cities to target, harass, and displace homeless people, perpetuating prejudice and stigma against them and imperiling their health and safety, practices that one UN committee member referred to as “shameful.”

The courts of British Columbia have found anti-camping laws in two cities unconstitutional. Further, the Supreme Court of B.C. has found that constant displacement of homeless people causes physical and psychological harm and hinders the ability of service providers to find and assist homeless people. Despite these findings, local anti-camping laws continue to exist across Canada.

The proliferation of anti-camping laws and related state actions are the result of taking a piecemeal policy approach to housing in Canada and of failing to recognize the human rights of homeless people to an adequate standard of living, housing and protection from discrimination. Homeless Canadians have been left to fight for the right to sleep under a tarp or box overnight rather than a right to an adequate standard of living and protection from laws that discriminate against them.

This is an unacceptable state of affairs in a nation as affluent as Canada.

The UN has called on Canada to enact a national housing strategy that recognizes the right to housing and prohibits anti-camping laws that prevent people from sheltering. Without these legally enforceable rights, an incredibly vulnerable population cannot access justice and protect themselves from laws that displace them, make them invisible, and treat them like criminals.

If Canada is going to assume a role as a leader in international human rights, the federal government must recognize social condition, including homelessness, as a protected ground against discrimination and recognize the right of homeless people to an adequate standard of living and health. These are the cornerstones of ending stigma and prejudice against homeless people.

Canada must also recognize a justiciable right to adequate housing, this is what is required of us under the Covenant and it is what Canadian values demand. We can no longer leave some our most vulnerable people without any legal recourse when their most fundamental rights are violated. We must also revoke anti-camping laws that discriminate against, stigmatize and criminalize people experiencing homelessness for engaging in behavior necessary for survival.

None of this will result in Canada being pushed beyond its capacity to provide for these rights. Canada will maintain its ability to allocate its resources. These commitments will, however, ensure that those resources are allocated in accordance with human rights and will allow alleged rights violations to be adjudicated on the facts of each case rather than being dismissed as non-justiciable.

As Canadians we believe ourselves to be compassionate and respectful of human rights. The international community, however, is not yet convinced that we are committed to acting on our stated values. For Canada to meet its international obligations and to show the world that we are back and are ready to be leaders on the international stage, we must start with housing justice at home.

The op-ed was originally published in the Hill Times(photo: Garry Knight/cc/flickr)