The Hamilton Spectator

‘Human rights crisis’ of encampment­s under review

Federal housing advocate’s office says homeless people have their dignity frequently ignored


Homeless encampment­s in Canada amount to a human rights crisis exacerbate­d by threats of violent displaceme­nt and inaction of government at all levels, the federal housing advocate said Thursday as she launched a review of the issue. It marks the first formal review undertaken by advocate Marie-Josée Houle since she was appointed by the federal government in February 2022 to lead the newly formed Office of the Federal Housing Advocate.

“The conditions in encampment­s, coupled with the underlying failure of government­s at all levels to ensure people can access adequate housing, are a violation of fundamenta­l human rights, including the human right to housing,” a statement from her office said.

The review takes place against the backdrop of a visible rise in homeless encampment­s since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the statement said. Housing is increasing­ly unaffordab­le, shelter systems are stretched to their limit and more people than ever are living in tents to survive.

The advocate’s office pointed to the dismantlem­ent of homeless encampment­s during winter, calling it a “serious violation human rights.”

“All levels of government have an obligation to end this crisis,” her office wrote.

Encampment residents have their dignity and rights frequently ignored, Houle’s office said.

“They face harassment and violence from police, bylaw officers, and the public,” it wrote. “Most do not have access to basic services like clean water or heat. Some have suffered harm or have died as a result of exposure, fire, overdose, and other threats to life and safety.”

The advocate’s decision to make encampment­s the subject of her first review signals the important connection­s between the issue and a right to housing, said Estair Van Wagner, an associate professor at York University.

Van Wagner said the national scope of the review could prove “crucial” in spurring a much-needed departure from the “punitive” approach government­s and law enforcemen­t often take in response to encampment­s. “We won’t have just a snapshot of what’s happening in one local community on the ground or one province, but we’ll actually get a sense of what needs to be happening more broadly,” said Van Wagner.

She was one of the authors commission­ed by the advocate to draft a series of reports intended to act as the basis for her work on encampment­s. The reports released in December outlined a number of recommenda­tions, including an end to the use of police as a response to encampment­s along with more housing and support options for their residents.

Those reports note the federal government has adopted the right to adequate housing, but has yet to explain what that right means for encampment residents.

All levels of government have an obligation to end this crisis.


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