Housing advocate calls for an end to authorization of tent camps

“It is an urgent situation: people are dying,” says Marie-Joseé Houle

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Canada’s federal housing ombudsman has called for an end to the forced eviction of homeless people from tent encampments that have mushroomed in cities and towns across the country.

In a report released TuesdayMarie-Joseé Houle said such evictions endanger the lives and safety of homeless people and represent a violation of their Charter rights.

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“Camp evictions cause harm, and they are not a solution,” Houle said in an interview.

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The country has seen encampment clearing operations over the past year in cities such as Edmonton, Vancouver, Prince George, Calgary, Regina, Toronto, Kingston and Montreal, where tents have been erected in public parks, highway underpasses and city sidewalks. The municipalities have justified these evictions by arguing that the camps are illegal and unsafe.

But Houle said camps should only be closed if suitable alternative housing is available. Otherwise, he said, municipalities should work with tent communities so that human lives and dignity can be preserved.

He rejected the idea that providing municipal services (water, sanitation, electricity) to tent camps consolidates them into public places.

“They already exist,” Houle argued. “This is what people have chosen from a terrible menu of terrible options. This is not an adventure; This is not a solution. This is what they have chosen because everything they are offered is worse.”

Houle made his comments when his final report on the country’s tent cities was released. The report calls on the federal government to establish a national response plan to what Houle calls “the human rights crisis facing people living in homeless encampments.”

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“This national crisis demands a national response,” he said. “This is an urgent situation: people are dying.”

Marie-Jose Houle
Federal housing advocate Marie-Josee Houle poses for a portrait in St. John’s, Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bud Gaulton /The Canadian Press

The federal housing advocate said a national plan should seek to ensure that all tent dwellers have access to clean water, sanitation, food, health care, heating, cooling, harm reduction and other supports. It should also, he said, ensure that drop-in centers or shelters are accessible 24 hours a day to provide people with a place to rest, warm and access services.

Houle wants the national response plan in place by the end of August to save lives before the onset of another Canadian winter.

The federal housing ombudsman launched a review of homeless encampments in Canada last February and issued an interim report in October following consultations with tent dwellers, municipal politicians, homeless advocates, leaders indigenous and others.

Today’s final report has been handed over to federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser for an official response, which must be submitted within 120 days, according to the National Housing Strategy Act.

Houle said the federal government has a responsibility to ensure that Canada meets its international human rights obligations, including those to Indigenous people who make up a substantial portion of the country’s homeless community, particularly in the western provinces. . In Edmonton, the report notes, an estimated 60 per cent of the homeless population is Indigenous.

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Houle argued that the federal government also has a duty to help municipalities deal with what she called a “visible manifestation” of the country’s failed housing system.

No one has counted the number of people now living in tent encampments, but the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness has estimated that at least 35,000 people are homeless at any given time in this country. A survey of Canadian municipalities estimated that 20 to 25 percent of homeless people live in tent encampments.

“The camps represent an effort by people experiencing homelessness to reclaim their human rights and meet their most basic needs,” Houle said.

In 2019, the federal government, through its National Housing Strategy Act, recognized adequate housing as a human right and committed to the “progressive realization” of that right. The law created a federal housing ombudsman to defend Canadians’ right to housing.

Andrew Duffy is a National Newspaper Award-winning reporter and long-form writer living in Ottawa. To support his work, including exclusive subscriber-only content, sign up here: ottawacitizen.com/subscribe

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