Canada’s Federal Homeless strategy was initiated eighteen years ago with a three year commitment of funding for communities across Canada. Since that time it has never been transformed into a permanent program, having been continuously renewed for periods of one to five years often accompanied by reductions in funding. As part of the new National Housing Strategy, the Government of Canada has done something bold: it has committed to a ten year investment in a new homelessness strategy (which it describes as Phase One), with a doubling of the previous funding level. The questions we have been waiting to have answered are, what will the new program look like? What will be the government’s priorities? The release of two reports that are the outcome of national consultations over the past year  “Advisory Committee on Homelessness – Final Report” and “Homelessness Partnering Strategy Engagement – What We Heard Report 2018” may offer some insights into the direction the government is heading. 

I had the privilege of being appointed to the Advisory Committee on Homelessness, and participating in it’s deliberations. The Committeeis made up of a diversity of individuals with different kinds of knowledge from across Canada that include: key communities, representatives from national organizations, researchers, Indigenous leaders, and people with lived experience of homelessness. Our mandate was to consult with experts and stakeholders throughout Canada and provide next steps to redesign the new national homelessness strategy, and the results of this work led by Parliamentary Secretary Adam Vaughan, including 12 recommendations, was presented to the Honourable Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development. As the government announces details of the new program in the coming months, in light of these recommendations, I want to highlight several important themes from the report that suggest the federal government may be ready to move in a bold direction.

1. Adopt a national definition of homelessness to break barriers

The Government of Canada has never adopted an official definition of homelessness, meaning there is often confusion as to what problem we are trying to solve.  Does homelessness only describe people sleeping rough or in emergency shelters? What about the hidden homeless? Or those at risk of homelessness? The Committee recommends adopting a broad, inclusive, and consistent definition of homelessness. The Canadian Definition of Homelessness describes a range of accommodations that make up the continuum of homelessness – unsheltered, emergency sheltered, provisionally accommodated, and at risk of homelessness. By adopting this widely used definition, HPS will be able to expand its scope, thereby improving access to funding for groups less likely to qualify as ‘chronically homeless’ (as measured through shelter use), such as Indigenous People’s, youth, LGBTQ2S-identified people, and women. Employing a comprehensive definition will shed a light on hidden homelessness and increase transparency, regarding the scale and impact of homelessness in Canada.

The Committee also recommends that HPS review the Indigenous Definition on Homelessness in Canada as the program is designed and delivered.  The definition reflects Indigenous Peoples’ experiences of homelessness as more than houselessness, but as a loss of All my Relations. Historical and ongoing colonization practices and discrimination have led to the over-representation of Indigenous Peoples among those experiencing homelessness. Applying the Indigenous definition will provide opportunities for HPS to better listen to and support Indigenous communities to provide the programs and services they identify as crucial to ending Indigenous homelessness.

2. Taking a rights-based approach to homelessness and housing

Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, has argued that “Homelessness is the most egregious violation of the right to housing and other human rights.”1 The Advisory Committee has asked that the Government of Canada place “Realizing the right to housing for Canadians experiencing homelessness” as central to the government’s strategy. This is important, because even when the National Housing Strategy leads to an expansion of supply of affordable housing, this will not on its own guarantee a reduction in homelessness, because of the pent up demand within the rest of society. In framing housing as a human right, this means going beyond simply a rights-based approach.  The government will need to explicitly acknowledge its obligations to international treaties and progressively work towards implementing this right fully within a reasonable amount of time. The right to housing means that governments will be obligated to support those in greatest need such as people experiencing homelessness to get access to housing that is safe, appropriate and affordable, and that this right is judiciable (meaning if a person’s rights are violated, they will have legal recourse to public hearings, adjudication and remedies to ensure the government meets its obligations). Ensuring that the obligations to the right to housing is honoured, will mean that the integration and linkage between the National Housing Strategy and the new national homelessness strategy is made clear, ensuring that the goal of ending homelessness is truly possible.

3. Work towards solutions guided by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

One of the consequences of our history of colonization in Canada is that Indigenous peoples are overrepresented amongst homeless populations, whether we are talking about adults or youth. We believe we cannot discuss homelessness in Canada without acknowledging and addressing this challenge through collaboration and meaningful engagement with Indigenous peoples. The Committee positioned its recommendations within the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The HPS renewal must advance meaningful reconciliation, which includes supporting Indigenous-led solutions to homelessness. The Committee recommends increased funding for the Indigenous stream of HPS, particularly the addition of new funding for the Territories, with the knowledge that Northern Indigenous communities have unique challenges that require community-led solutions. Not only must we work towards better and more inclusive outcomes for Indigenous people, but Indigenous ways of knowing should be informing how we work with all people at risk of, or who experience homelessness.

4. Shift to prevention

The Committee also recommends that HPS prioritize homelessness prevention and this is a bold and overdue move. In North America, unlike elsewhere in the world, we have been very reluctant to embrace the importance of prevention as part of the strategy to address homelessness. The argument that as a crisis response, we need to focus only on those in greatest need – in this case chronically homeless persons – before we can focus on prevention is not justifiable. We would never accept building our entire health care system around the emergency room, waithing for people to be extremely sick or close to death before we help them.  

In keeping with the recommendations found within Leading the Way: Reimagining Federal Leadership on Preventing Homelessness,the Committee calls for HPS to work upstream and reduce the in-flow into homelessness. In 2014, the HPS renewal centered around investing in Housing First, where large communities were directed to use 65% of their funding towards Housing First initiatives. This same policy shift now needs to take place with prevention. By adopting the definition of homelessness prevention found in the COH’s Prevention Framework, HPS can take another bold and resolute step forward, with emphasis on progressive policy, systems-based approaches, early intervention and housing retention. We should never design a system where people are only offered help after the experience of homelessness has been sufficiently damaging to a person’s health and well-being.  People should not have to wait until things get really bad to get help. So while the advisory committee has recommended the government continue to prioritize chronic homelessness (and those with high acuity), it is worth pointing out once again that all orders of government and communities are allowed to have more than one priority. It is my belief that we can never end homelessness until we figure out how to prevent it from happening in the first place.

5. Prioritize and invest in strategic youth-focused programs and services

The causes and conditions of youth homelessness, compared with adults are unique, and therefore so must be the solutions.  When the 2014 HPS renewal prioritized chronically and episodically homeless populations, concerns from sector stakeholders emerged that the current investment requirements create barriers for communities to support other vulnerable populations, such as youth. The Advisory Committee has flagged the importance of addressing youth homelessness to meet the federal government’s mandate of reducing chronic and episodic homelessness by 50%. Addressing youth homelessness now will prevent chronic homelessness in the future. 

The Committee has strongly recommended that communities implement comprehensive and data driven systems plans to respond to homelessness, and that targeted strategies to end youth homelessness must be visibly and robustly embedded in those plans. Communities should be supported to implement innovative programs and interventions that, based on the needs of developing adolescents and young adults, focus on prevention and supporting rapid exits from homelessness for youth. Given what we are learning about how to address youth homelessness through prevention, a strong investment in this area can help the government realize its goal of helping communities shift to prevention. The Committee also raises the overrepresentation of LGBTQ2S youth among people experiencing homelessness and the need for proactive policies, programs, and practices to address their specific needs.

This is what moving forward looks like

Should the government mobilize our recommendations, we are excited by the future before us. Big changes lay ahead; with the federal government taking a leadership position, it’s time to do things differently. Communities are ready – let’s move forward, together.