Our letter regarding a Human Rights-Based Approach to Housing for Canada

Human Rights-Based Approach to Housing Team
Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation
700 Montreal Rd
Ottawa ON K1A 0P7

June 1, 2018

Dear Minister Duclos, Mr. Vaughan, and the Human Rights-Based Approach to Housing Team,

Adsum for Women & Children is a community-based non-profit organization that has been active in Halifax for 35 years. Through the provision of emergency shelter, supportive housing, transitional housing, affordable housing and housing support services and eviction prevention, we witness humanity at its best and worst. In addition to absolute homelessness and housing insecurity, the women, families, youth and trans* persons we meet face a wider spectrum of social and personal challenges that may include poverty, mental and physical health issues, trauma, family and intimate partner violence, lack of education, single-parenthood and addictions. Many are managing multiple life stressors, all while dealing with systems that most of us would find challenging under the best of circumstances. Absolute homelessness and housing insecurity underpin it all.

The vision we aspire to is to live in a province, indeed a country, where everyone has the right to a safe, secure home. It is our view that a human rights-based approach to housing would recognize the inherent dignity and worth of everyone. In other words, by virtue of being human, all Canadians are worthy of having safe, affordable, and appropriate housing options available to them.

People in poverty, particularly women and trans* persons in poverty, rarely have much say over where they must live. At a recent roundtable at our transitional housing location, residents were asked what a human rights-based approach to housing should include. Overwhelmingly, the participants said that security and choice were of utmost importance. Here are some of their voices and ideas.

• A human rights-based approach to housing would recognize that simply building more housing units and placing people in them will not adequately address and eliminate homelessness. Everyone has unique experiences and needs that demand a variety of housing options. These would include independent housing, supportive housing, cooperative housing, as well as affordable home ownership. In other words, a human rights-based approach cannot be one that ascribes to the ideology of ‘one size fits all’.

• Women have unique needs and experiences. Not all women want to live alone or independently. They commonly express a need to feel safe while low income forces too many into unsafe or inadequate housing.

“I want to feel safe. I want security for me and my daughter. I want us to be comfortable. The apartments that I can afford are in areas where I have to be on guard all of the time.”

“If you are a lone woman, it’s dangerous. You can’t just go and live in any neighbourhood. You have to always be aware of your safety.”

• Everyday life events such as illness, bereavement, or the need to stay at home to care for a sick child impact the affordability of housing. Women and families are negatively impacted in their search for, and maintenance of safe housing by many other factors that include: discrimination; sexual orientation; gender identity; age; newcomer status; race; violence; conflict with the law; displacement from rural parts of the province and/or reserves to access services. Other barriers include poor credit history, outstanding debt, and negative experiences with previous landlords.

• A human rights-based approach must recognize the special needs of people living with mental illness. Often, affordable housing means living in accommodations that are not conducive to mental wellness.

“I can’t rent a place in the basement, with no light, no door to the outside, no windows … I can’t live like that because of my depression. I can’t survive in dark spaces. There is no dignity to living like that. I need at least a door, a balcony, something.”

• A human right-based approach must prioritize the needs of families and offer supportive housing and services to couples with children so families are not split up. In Nova Scotia, for example, there are no places for mothers, fathers and children in housing crisis to stay together as a family unit, except in a hotel, unless they enter a program that our organization initiated this year.

• A human rights-based approach must recognize the needs of rural Canadians living in poverty, and not focus only on urban areas.

• It is important to acknowledge that housing does not exist in a silo; a person’s physical health, mental health, income level, gender, access to social supports, and community integration are all aspects to consider when addressing housing insecurity and homelessness. Even within a particular kind of housing, people have different needs, often dependent on what they are going through at any given time in their lives. Some people we work with in supportive housing depend on intensive and wrap around supports to assist in maintaining tenancies, while others require only minimal supports and interventions to live independently.

• A human right-based approach must include the provision of supports including more housing support programs, intensive housing search support, and transportation, to help to eliminate the barriers.

Despite the diversity of of their backgrounds and housing needs, residents of our transitional housing identified six common themes when describing their ideal living space:

• Safety
• Centrality
• Choice
• Specialized housing
• Convenience
• Affordability

We know that under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Canada is to ensure the right to housing for all people in the country. We also know that the right to housing is more than just the right to a house; it is the right to live in security, peace, and dignity. It is the right to adequate housing, as outlined by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Adequate housing is affordable, livable, accessible and culturally appropriate. It provides access to necessary services, such as water, sanitation and energy. It is located near job opportunities, healthcare, school and social services. It ensures that people are not at risk of being forcibly evicted, subject to arbitrary rent increases or a landlord’s attempts to get back the property through eviction.

Under international law, Canada is required to immediately guarantee the right to housing in an equal and non-discriminatory way, to develop concrete plans of action, to prevent forced evictions and to ensure security of tenure for all. Canada must use the maximum available resources to realize the right to housing for all by 2030.[1]

As the Executive Director of Adsum for Women & Children, I call on the Government of Canada to base the National Housing Strategy (NHS) legislation on Canada’s obligations under international covenants and include the following:

1. Explicit recognition of the right to adequate housing as defined in international law and of the obligation of all levels of government to progressively implement the right within a reasonable period of time.
2. A commitment to address systemic inequality on the basis of race, gender, disability and other grounds, the impacts of colonization and the rights of Indigenous communities, including those in urban centres.
3. Prioritization of those in most urgent housing need and a commitment to eliminate homelessness by 2030 as Canada has agreed to under the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
4. An accessible process through which systemic rights claims are subject to public hearings, adjudication and remedies. While ultimate recourse to courts is important, other accessible claiming mechanisms should also be included, such as Ombudsman offices, housing commissioners, human rights institutions, community housing councils or housing advocates.
5. Independent monitoring of progress and accountability based on human rights-based goals and timelines.
6. Individuals and communities affected by homelessness and inadequate housing have opportunities for input, leadership and decision-making – as rights claimants and program beneficiaries, and also in monitoring, evaluation and oversight roles.
7. The NHS enshrines an all-of-government approach where all implicated ministries and all levels of government recognize their obligations with respect to the right to housing.
8. NHS funding is allocated and monitored using rights-based criteria and targets which trigger local, provincial and territorial governments’ obligations to realize the right to housing.

We encourage the Human Rights-Based Approach to Housing Team to continuously evaluate the National Housing Strategy against these guidelines in order to ensure the strategy fulfills the Government’s international human rights obligations and realizes the right to housing for all. Thank you for the opportunity to provide comment.


Sheri Lecker
Executive Director

[1] In September 2015, Canada and 192 other UN member states adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes 17 ambitious goals with targets. Sustainable Development Goal 11 calls on all member states to ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing.