Homeless encampments are one of the most serious right-to-housing issues in Canada today. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of shelter spaces decreased, indoor services became unsafe, and people lost their livelihoods and their homes. This led to a rise in homeless encampments across the country. 

It is unfortunate that there is little comprehensive data available on this urgent crisis. Even so, we know that many people had little choice but to turn to living in tents or informal shelters to survive the combination of historic crises in health, housing, climate change, colonial violence, and unemployment.

To begin to fill the gap in reliable information, the Office of the Federal Housing Advocate commissioned a series of reports bringing together knowledge and expertise from across the country with the goal of charting an approach to encampments based on human rights. The research team included legal experts, university researchers, community organizations, and people with lived expertise of unsheltered homelessness. 

The series is based around five case studies detailing cities’ responses to encampments during the pandemic. The studies pay particular attention to how municipal bylaws and other laws were used to criminalize encampments and their residents to justify evictions, and then how these legal attacks were challenged in court. The five case studies are:

These case studies make it abundantly clear that the punitive approach to encampments has failed in every way. It has not addressed the underlying conditions that led to the growth of encampments, and it has not respected the rights or increased the safety of encampment residents. 

Perhaps most strikingly, these reports make space for the voices of encampment residents and their supporters, who describe the kinds of mutual aid and community they were able to create. Within broken systems, encampments can be a choice that make sense for people who are unable to access existing shelters, and working together to meet their basic needs has been a powerful experience for many people. 

What is the alternative to the cycle of teardowns and displacement?

The series is anchored by an overview report that builds on the five case studies and seeks to answer this question. It argues that it starts with recognizing the dual nature of encampments: they are at once a violation of residents’ right to housing and a way that those residents are asserting their right, creating homes as best they can. 

Notably, the report builds upon eight core principles of a rights-based approach to encampments identified in A National Protocol on Homeless Encampments in Canada by Leilani Farha and Kaitlin Schwan. Briefly, these principles are:

  1. Recognize residents of homeless encampments as rights holders: they are claiming their rights within failed systems
  2. Meaningful engagement and effective participation of encampment residents
  3. Prohibition of forced evictions of encampments
  4. Explore all viable alternatives to eviction
  5. Ensure that any relocation is human rights compliant
  6. Ensure encampments meet the basic needs of residents, consistent with human rights
  7. Ensure human rights-based goals and outcomes and the preservation of dignity for encampment residents
  8. Respect, protect, and fulfil the distinct rights of Indigenous peoples in all engagements with encampments

Using these eight principles as a starting point, the authors go on to present five recommendations for the federal government that would allow them to adopt the kind of rights-based approach to encampments described above. 

1. Stop the use of policing and law enforcement as a response to encampments

A rights-based approach to encampments requires all governments, including municipalities and the federal government, to end their practices of using trespass orders, bylaws, and policing to evict unhoused people from encampments.

2. Municipal governments and shared responsibility

In adopting a rights-based approach to encampments, federal and provincial governments have an obligation to provide funding and services that offset the disproportionate impact faced by municipalities in addressing the housing crisis and the existence of encampments. This includes short-term options, such as investments in modular housing and suitable shelter spaces, and longer-term investments in social and affordable housing.

3. Ensure the meaningful participation of encampment residents 

A rights-based approach requires meaningful and inclusive participation of people living in homelessness in the design and implementation of policies, programs, and practices that affect them.

4. Recognize the distinct rights of Indigenous peoples 

Indigenous people are drastically over-represented in unsheltered homelessness across the country. A rights-based approach requires governments to acknowledge Indigenous rights under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Canadian Constitution, treaties and case law. Governments should meaningfully engage all relevant Indigenous stakeholders and nations, as identified by Indigenous peoples themselves, in the development of policy approaches to encampments.

5. Address the conditions within encampments and provide basic services 

A rights-based approach requires that encampment residents have access to basic services, such as clean water, sanitation facilities, electricity, and heat.
A different approach to encampments is necessary, one that fully respects the rights and dignity of residents as part of the progressive realization of the right to housing, as described in the National Housing Strategy Act

A different approach to encampments is necessary, one that fully respects the rights and dignity of residents as part of the progressive realization of the right to housing, as described in the National Housing Strategy Act. 

Any response to encampments that doesn’t respect them as a community and keep residents’ rights and dignity as a central focus is doomed to fail. These reports show a different path forward that is grounded in putting people and their human rights first.

(This blog post quotes extensively from the overview report written by Alexandra Flynn, Joe Hermer, Caroline Leblanc, Sue-Ann MacDonald, Kaitlin Schwan, and Estair Van Wagner.)