Canada’s National Housing Strategy establishes “the right of every Canadian to access adequate housing”. Despite the establishment of this strategy, housing-related challenges are growing and the realization of the right to housing is far from reality for many. According to Statistics Canada:

  • Over 235,000 people experience homelessness in a given year. 
  • Affordable housing wait-lists in large urban centres approach a decade. 
  • People with disabilities struggle to find accessible and/or supportive housing options.  
  • Many Indigenous Peoples, especially those in northern and remote areas, live in overcrowded and substandard housing.

As part of its work to make recommendations to improve the NHS, the National Housing Council (NHC), “an advisory body that promotes participation and inclusion in the development of housing policy”, invited our team to answer the question, “What can the NHS learn from people with lived experience (LE) and histories of homelessness and core housing need?” Our team - which includes three people with lived experience of homelessness - did a secondary analysis of publicly available research and reports where people with LE of homelessness and/or core housing need were - at a minimum - involved as research subjects. This blog provides an overview of our findings and recommendations.

After reviewing almost 300 documents, we came to several important conclusions with implications for the NHS. Most critically, it is clear that people with LE can and must play a more central and leadership role in informing both research and policy related to housing and homelessness moving forward. Of the documents we reviewed: 

  • Only 51 included LE researchers, or people with LE beyond research subjects (e.g., advising on research design, implementation, dissemination and so on). 
  • 44 of these were research studies or reports, and 
  • Seven were community housing and/or homelessness plans. 

Despite these limitations, these documents offer strategies and important commitments for meaningful LE engagement. Furthermore, the sparse but growing body of literature led and authored by people who are most impacted by homelessness demonstrates a shift from people with LE as research subjects to important partners to consult with when developing solutions. People with LE are not only consulted to gain a better understanding of homelessness and core housing need but also for helping to realize the right to housing across Canada.  

What do the documented experiences of people with LE tell us about policy needs related to homelessness and core housing need? 

An overarching finding is that without a rights-based approach to affordable housing, the needs of many groups – including youth, Indigenous Peoples, families, people who use substances and/or have psychiatric labels, and those who sleep rough and are without access to shelters – will continue to go unmet. 

Another clear message that shines through the documented LE knowledge we reviewed is that Indigenous Peoples, Nations and governments must have space and support to develop and pursue Indigenous-led housing strategies. Documented LE knowledge also reinforces the realities of the affordability crisis. Affordability was noted as a major barrier for people with LE to obtain stable housing. Inadequate social assistance rates also contribute to affordability challenges. Literature documenting LE voices highlight unique affordability-related challenges among recent immigrants and refugees, youth, women, older adults, students, and employed single adults working in low-wage jobs. 

Although the issue of affordability has received a lot of attention - especially having to do with how affordability is (inadequately) defined in NHS-funded programs - another major issue raised by people with LE was housing inadequacy. The literature we reviewed suggests that adequate housing must be at least: accessible (including appropriate supports and services), free from discrimination (based on race, age, source of income, and so on), and appropriate (culturally, size-wise, and in terms of its physical condition). 

We also summarized and documented information about the importance of housing supports, and about a variety of unmet housing needs. We note that “there is not a universal experience of homelessness or core housing need, and as such, responding to unmet housing needs will require much more careful attention to what types of housing are supported through the NHS, and with what guidance from people with LE.” 

Ultimately, our analysis of the literature led us to make the following recommendations:

  • The NHC should advocate strongly for: 
    • Housing-related research funding that prioritizes people with LE as research designers, implementers, analysts, authors, and disseminators; and
    • Adefinition of affordability that meaningfully relates to the needs of people experiencing homelessness and/or core housing need, and that draws on existing recommendations by people with LE. 
    • NHS funding streams that contribute to the creation of a more diverse housing stock, informed by the needs of people with LE, because this is an essential dimension of achieving the right to housing ambition of the NHS. These funding streams should respond to unmet housing needs, while also considering promising practices related to trauma-informed and systems approaches. 
    • An Indigenous-led strategy that responds to the housing and related support needs of Indigenous Peoples. 

The broader application of gender-based analysis plus (GBA+) in the implementation of all dimensions of the NHS.

  • The NHC can and should: 
    • Model - and become a stronger voice for - centring diverse LE in the development, implementation, and ongoing monitoring and evaluation of housing-related supports and programs.
    • Carefully extract recommendations put forward by people with LE and commission their engagement in developing accountability mechanisms to help combat the problem of important reports being underutilized.
    • Work with people with LE to develop recommendations about how the implementation of the NHS, and the work of the NHC, will be accountable to people with LE moving forward. 
  • Communities should better account for, and disaggregate, LE voices and recommendations in community housing and homelessness plans and needs assessments to increase government and systems accountability to people with LE.

Our report highlights not only the need for increased advocacy to ensure the National Housing Strategy achieves its aims to assure the housing rights of all Canadians, but that there is an urgent need for action. This action must be grounded in concrete efforts to further not only the engagement of communities with diverse experiences of homelessness, but foster lived experience leadership for more effective change.

“Without attention to LE knowledge, the NHS risks being a policy document that does little to address Canada’s housing crisis. But with meaningful LE leadership, there is hope that the NHS can support the progressive realization of the right to housing in Canada”. 

Our report does not replace the need to hear directly from people with LE throughout the process of developing, implementing and evaluating housing policy and community plans. More time and resources are needed to ensure LE involvement and knowledge are equitably represented in the work of the NHC and policymaking across all orders of government.

Read the full report here: A National Housing Strategy By and For Whom?