On November 7th, the Quebec Mayor Régis Labeaume announced that imprisonment for people experiencing homelessness would no longer be a consequence of unpaid tickets and that offences such as sleeping in a public place and being in a park between 11 and 5 am will be met with some leniency. Although this would initially appear to be a positive measure, the Mayor was also quick to specify that this lenience was meant to be applied to people dealing with mental health issues and not to “les bums” (that is, people who would experience chronic or long-term homelessness “by choice”). This distinction between “involuntary” homelessness and “les bums” perpetuates the idea of an undeserving poor individual and fails to recognize homelessness as a serious systemic issue. It also fits within a broader trend in Canada towards stigmatizing, marginalizing and criminalizing people experiencing long-term homelessness – as opposed to those experiencing provisional accommodations and emergency shelters, or at risk of homelessness – without recognizing the kind of services that would address their specific needs. The double standard invoked by Mayor Labeaume is tantamount to socio-economic discrimination, as it targets people experiencing homelessness, as well as housing precarity and economic vulnerability. This stance is in conflict with the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, which protects people from discrimination on the basis of social condition.
The Mayor’s position fails to acknowledge the known structural, systemic and inter-individual causes of homelessness and perpetuates discriminatory divisions between supposedly “legitimate” and “illegitimate” forms of homelessness. Rather than criminalizing poverty and housing instability, there is a need for collective reflections on how cities can proactively and ethically prevent and end homelessness. Dividing people experiencing homelessness and housing precarity between “deserving” and “undeserving” does nothing to address the numerous factors that both put people at increased risk of homelessness and make it harder for them to exit homelessness and housing precarity, from socio-economic disadvantage and substance use to difficult family backgrounds, childhood trauma, domestic and family violence as well as the failures of child protection legislation, policy, and services.
Luckily, we can draw on legal initiatives adopted elsewhere to guide our efforts. In South Africa, for example, the right to housing is constitutionally protected. Elsewhere, including France, Scotland and Wales, an enforceable right to housing has been legislated. In Wales, an initiative inspired by the “Duty to Assist” has resulted in a duty for public institutions to assist homeless people. This concept of a Duty to Assist is indeed central to the Housing (Wales) Act of 2014, which outlines a rights-based approach to homelessness prevention. There is, as yet, no similar legislation in Canada. But according to Quebec’s own Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, when a life is in peril, citizens of Quebec are entitled to the right to assistance. Given that the average lifespan for someone experiencing homelessness is 17.5 years less than a person in the general population, it could be argued that homelessness places people’s lives in peril and that we all have a right to assistance when facing such a predicament. In Canada, it is up to the provinces and municipalities to take action to effectively address homelessness, including the homelessness or residential precarity of children and youth. The designation of some people living in extreme poverty and housing precarity as undeserving "bums" suggests the State is failing to uphold its commitments to ensuring people live free of discrimination based on social conditions.
In order to adequately and justly address homelessness and housing precarity, a range of factors needs to be taken into consideration. For example, municipalities need to address policy-enabled gentrification. The displacement of working-class residents, through steady rent increases and shifts in public and community service provisions, has effectively led to the displacement of persons with low-income. Equitably and timely access to housing, health, and social services must also be a State priority. Quebec municipalities have positive obligations to ensure people’s constitutional rights are protected. We recommend the State moves towards legislating a “Duty to Assist”, while providing municipalities with the necessary resources and supports to enable them to act on a statutory obligation to assist – rather than criminalizing – people who experience homelessness and other manifestations of extreme poverty.
Faiz Abhuani, Executive Director, Brique par Brique
Anurag Dhir, Community Engagement Coordinator, Social Equity and Diversity Education Office, McGill University
Sophie Doyle, Candidate at Faculty of Law, McGill University
Sasha Dyck, Vice-President of the Board of Directors, Parc-Extension Action Committee
Justin Lavoie, Community activist, Quebec City
Mitchell McLarnon, PhD Candidate, Faculty of Education, McGill University
Emmanuel Rioux, Law Student, Université de Montréal
Alex Saulnier, Anthropology student, Laval University
Émile Septembre, Sociology student, Laval University