Research Matters Blog

A Way Home
March 08, 2017

I’m heading to Helsinki Monday night. Why Helsinki? Though I do enjoy the commitment to all things death metal, uncomfortable group spa trips with colleagues and the extreme cold, I’m actually heading there with Dr. Gaetz to learn from European colleagues and to contribute to a growing body of work concerning the Canadian-made Housing First for Youth model. (All kidding aside, Finland is a pretty fantastic place.)

As an American in Canada, I’ve had years of practice in breaking open my thinking beyond national borders. Concerning my work in youth homelessness, I find it not only important but essential to look beyond Canada to innovative solutions in policy and practice globally for preventing and ending youth homelessness. Canadians also make important contributions to this body of work. The Housing First for Youth model is adapted from the adult Housing First model to meet the needs of developing adolescents. It was developed by our very own Dr. Stephen Gaetz in collaboration with youth with lived experience, the Hamilton Street Youth Planning Collaborative, and the National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness. The model has taken root in countries around the world and the learnings from those implementing the model in various contexts are proving invaluable in evolving the model, and therefore enhancing the supports young people experience on the ground. 

Another great example of making international engagement work for Canadian youth is The Upstream Project. Though I’ve written about it before, it’s one of the things I’m most proud to be a part of. Led by our friends at Raising the Roof in partnership with Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, A Way Home, the Push for Change and community partners The Raft and 360°kids, this model of school-based early identification and intervention could help to transform our response to youth homelessness in Canada. The Upstream Project is an adaptation of The Geelong Project in Australia. Our on-going collaboration with “the Australians” as we lovingly refer to the visionaries behind this project, has proven key to implementing the model in the Canadian context. 

Recently, we were proud to host a delegation from Denmark that came to learn from our efforts to prevent and youth homelessness using the Collective Impact approach. They visited Calgary and Toronto to learn about innovative solutions at the policy and program levels that they can adapt in Denmark. As is the way with these types of exchanges, I think we learned more from them than they could possibly know. The great news is now we have established relationships with the Home for All Alliance and the Bikuben Foundation that will allow us to continue the shared learning. Catherine Donnelly Foundation also hosted a funder-to-funder event and dialogue concerning the role of philanthropy in this global movement.

I would also like to give a shout out to Canadian service providers, many of whom have program models that have been showcased and adapted internationally. Just the other day, Eva’s released an updated version of the Family Reconnect Toolkit that has supported communities internationally to do this important work. Our friends at Covenant House Toronto have shared their model for supporting young women who have experienced human trafficking. I met someone in the U.S. just last week, who said that their community was basing a lot of their work in this area on Covenant House’s toolkit. In a meeting with the E.U. Commission last year, Dr. Gaetz and I were asked to represent and discuss HireUp’s innovative work on youth homelessness and employment. One more example that is at the top of my mind lately is the approach that Winnipeg took concerning Indigenous leadership on developing a youth homelessness community plan. This is just a tiny sampling of the kinds of innovations that can, and in my experience will translate to many countries around the world.

I’ll close by saying that I feel completely honoured to engage internationally on behalf of A Way Home Canada in service of youth experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness. Next up? I’m off to pack my Black Sabbath t-shirt and bathing costume for Finland.

This post is part of a monthly series that follows A Way Home's progress as we create real change on the issue of youth homelessness. On the second Wednesday of every month, join us for an update from A Way Home's Executive Director, Melanie Redman. 

Homeless Hub
March 03, 2017
Categories: Ask the Hub

In 2014, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness released Aboriginal Homelessness in Canada: A Literature Review. One of the recommendations coming out of the literature review was a call for future studies not to homogenize the Indigenous population of Canada, and pointed out to the dearth of research focusing on colonial relations between Indigenous Peoples and governments. Considering these critiques of the existing literature on Indigenous Peoples’ homelessness, I will try to touch on some of these aspects within the constraints of a blog entry.   

Demographics

Nunavut’s population reached 37,146 residents in 2016; Iqaluit is the largest community with more than 6,669 people as of 2011. Nunavut has the highest population growth than any other province or territory in Canada mostly due to high birth rates rather than immigration and/or inter-provincial/territorial migration. A third of its population is under the age of 15, and 64% is between the ages of 15 to 64. Inuit represent 85.4% of the total population of the territory and 45.5% of the total Inuit population in Canada. With a median age of 24 years, Canada’s newest territory has a young and rapidly growing Inuit population. Yet, the needs are great. Nunavut has the lowest socio-economic outcomes than any other province or territory. In 2011, high school graduation rates stood at 35% - shockingly low considering the 85% Canadian average for that same year. The unemployment rate as of January 2017 was 12.5%, almost twice as high as the 6.8% national average. The median income ($24,868) is lower than the national average ($29,878) and because of the high cost of living, the average Nunavummiut is considered poorer than most other Canadians. In 2013, 41.1% of Nunavut residents relied on social assistance. These combined factors make Nunavummiut at higher risk of becoming homeless, living in overcrowded conditions or staying in dangerous housing situations.

Within the homeless and precariously housed population, the 2010 Nunavut Housing Survey found that 1,220 Nunavummiut were experiencing homelessness and revealed that 4,230 dwellings out of a total of 9,400 did not meet minimum housing standards. Half of Inuit homes are overcrowded and/or in need of major repairs. Nunavut’s 2014 point-in-time count found 98 people living in shelters or in places not meant to be housing. Some other findings include:

  • 57% of survey respondents identified as male and 43% as women.
  • 30% of shelter respondents reported staying at the shelter with their children.
  • The average age of respondents was 38 but about 1/3 were youth between the ages of 18 and 29.
  • 69% of respondents grew up in the community that they were currently living in. 

History of Housing Provision

There is a billion dollar need for housing in Nunavut
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In order to understand the high rates of homelessness and overcrowding in Nunavut, we must trace back the Government of Canada’s colonial relationship with Inuit People. Inuit People had contact with European settlers since the 15th century mostly through their central role in the fur trade industry. However, most Inuit continued living a traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle until the 1960s when the Canadian government started establishing permanent settlements across Canada’s North. With the increasing number of federally administered permanent settlements, Inuit experienced added pressures and were forced to assimilate into Western culture by taking up wage employment for sustenance, moving into state-sponsored housing and sending their Inuit children to residential schools or federal hostels. As a response to the colonial attacks against their traditional livelihoods and self-determination, Inuit leaders formed a number of associations in order to negotiate land claim agreements that called for their self-determination, governance over Inuit land and social provisioning. In 1982, the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, the Keewatin Inuit Association, and the Baffin Regional Inuit Association formed the umbrella organization Tunngavik Federation of Nunavut and collectively negotiated the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement signed in 1993. With this, Inuit achieved greater self-governance, stewardship of their lands and resources while splitting with the Canadian government the responsibilities over health care, education, economic development and housing.

Traditional Inuit homes were portable to fit their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Yet, the first houses that the federal government built in the 1960s were plagued with problems from extremely high cost of construction and maintenance issues due to their sizes, poor quality materials, inadequate designs, and overall a low supply. As Inuit families were forced into permanent settlements, overcrowding became a serious concern by the mid-70s. And while a number of housing initiatives have been implemented by different agencies, housing problems worsened overtime. This violent uprooting from traditional Inuit life and forceful assimilation strategies have led to the high rates of homelessness, overcrowding, couch surfing, tent as well as shack and car living across Nunavut.

In 2004, Nunavut Tunngavik and the Government of Nunavut (GN) put a proposal forward to the federal government for $1.9 billion to address housing and homelessness over a period of 10 years. Five years ago, the demand for housing in Nunavut stood at 4,000 units, each costing $275,000 to build not including maintenance costs or electricity which would inflate this figure significantly more. As part art of the 2013 GN’s housing and homelessness strategy, the GN and housing authorities will continue to work with the federal government on this issue. Earlier this year, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) submitted its response the federal government’s Canada-wide consultations for the development of a national housing strategy. ITK advocated for “direct Inuit access to federal housing investments” for affordable housing, affordable housing alternatives, shelters and transitional housing. No dollar amount was included in their response but it was clear that their interests lay on boosting the housing continuum beyond what Inuit communities have received thus far from the federal government including what has been made available through the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS). 

Challenges

While very little has been written specifically on Inuit homelessness, the literature on colonialism, housing and poverty illustrates the unique realities of Nunavut including; the climate, the geographical remoteness, the lack of transportation infrastructure, the high costs of living, and most critically, the tragic aftermath of the colonial dispossession of Inuit traditions, culture, language and way of life. Today, the last point manifests itself through high poverty rates, food insecurity, violence, high unemployment rates, low educational attainment, disproportionate incarceration rates, poor mental health, intergenerational trauma, and high suicide rates. All of which are liked to Inuit homelessness either as a cause and/or barrier to obtaining adequate housing in the private rental and real estate market.

Researchers and advocates have connected the social realities, histories and experiences of Indigenous Peoples to the concept of home as a way of making better sense of the issue. The literature discusses Indigenous homelessness in terms of a cultural disconnection, involuntary uprooting and displacement from communities, a crisis of personal identity, colonial assimilation, the residential school system and child welfare legislation. My colleague Jesse Thistle is presently drafting on a definition of Indigenous homelessness and uncovering the notion of “home” beyond a physical structure over one’s head and a door to lock behind you. This research is paramount and very much needed if Canada is to prevent, reduce and eliminate Inuit homelessness by first understanding its multi-dimensional components in order to then establish coordinated responses that work. 

What’s Next?

Three major events are underway that could see improvements for Inuit living across the North.

First, the National Housing Strategy consultation report discussed Indigenous Peoples’ needs, their priorities, their desired outcomes and opportunities for housing. The report recognized the unique needs of First Nations, Metis and Inuit as distinct Peoples with their own cultures, rights and relationships with the federal government. A section of the report was dedicated to housing in Canada’s northern and remote regions and survey respondents called for a number of actions including:

  1. Modernizing the social housing portfolio
  2. Addressing gaps in the housing continuum particularly in small communities
  3. Addressing the social housing operating agreements and expiring subsidies
  4. Applying a northern and remote community lens when developing policies, supports and programs
  5. Addressing overcrowding with suitable options and solutions
  6. Using building materials and construction techniques appropriate, sustainable and durable for the region
  7. Improving coordination and collaboration among all levels of government

While the actual National Housing Strategy remains to be seen, on February 9, Inuit leaders including Natan Obed from ITK and Aluki Kotierk from Nunavut Tunngavik with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett signed a new Agreement on Inuit-Crown body, and launched a new bilateral working group. Mr. Obed stated:

“The Inuit-Crown Partnership Committee will paly an important role as we take action on the priorities that matter to Inuit and Canadians. This committee will enhance cooperation between Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the federal government, allowing us to give continue renewing the relationship between Inuit and the Crown in a sustainable and positive way.”

With improving access to appropriate and affordable housing as one of the primary objectives of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami’s 2016-2019 Strategy and Action Plan, this new Agreement may lead to future housing and social infrastructure developments not only in Nunavut but across Inuit regions.

Third and last, the Homelessness Partnering Secretariat is putting together an Advisory Committee of 8 to 10 members from across Canada to provide policy and program expertise and advice. Final membership will be announced later this spring. This could be an opportunity for greater Indigenous representation in HPS’ policy development process, and hopefully an Inuit leader present at the table advocating for the housing needs and rights of Nunavummiut. 

Resources

Image Credit: CBC News “Nunavut’s social housing faces billion-dollar shortfall

Calgary Homeless Foundation
February 28, 2017

On January 24, I gave a presentation to students at the University of Calgary as part of the Certificate in Working with Homeless Populations program. The goal of this presentation was to convey the fact that public policy strongly impacts the number of homeless people in a given jurisdiction at any particular time.

A version of my PowerPoint slides, which are chock-full of visuals and references, can be downloaded here: Falvo Public Policy and Homelessness WHP 1 of 3 

This is Part 1 of a 3-part presentation I gave that day.  You can expect Parts 2 and 3 in the coming weeks.

Here are 10 things to know:

  1. Federal spending in Canada fell drastically from the early 1990s until the mid-2000s. In the early 1990s, federal spending (not counting intergovernmental transfers) represented 19% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). By the late-2000s, that figure had dropped to about 13%. That’s a remarkably sharp drop in such a short time.
  1. Taxation fell sharply in Canada between the mid-1990s and the late-2000s. Looking at annual tax revenue expressed as a percentage of GDP (all orders of government combined) tax revenue in Canada represented 36% of GDP in the late-1990s.  By 2012, that figure had dropped to below 31%. What’s more, Canada’s level of taxation was considerably above the average for OECD countries in the mid-1990s; today, our taxation level is well below the OECD average.
  1. Federal spending on housing decreased substantially beginning in the early 1990s. In light of the trends discussed in points #1 and #2 above, this comes as little surprise to most people. For more on the federal role in housing policy, including a look at how it has evolved over the past several decades, see this 2013 conference paper.
  1. Rental housing production in Canada fell sharply beginning in the late 1970s. This happened in part due to reductions in public spending on housing discussed in point #3 above. Other factors that likely led to this drop include high interest rates (which made it expensive for developers to finance new supply), a shrinking middle class (which resulted in less demand for rental units), provincial legislation pertaining to condominiums, and rent regulation.[1]
  1. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Alberta government began spending substantially less on housing.This decrease was drastic. Indeed, in 1995, the Alberta government devoted an amount worth 0.36% of its GDP to housing; just five years later, this amount had shrunk to a mere 0.10%. The Alberta government’s annual spending on housing didn’t start to increase again until the early 2000s.
     
    Alberta Provincial Spending as % of GDP
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  1. In 1993, the Alberta government introduced strict reforms to social assistance. This entailed at least two things.  First, the rules changed, meaning that provincial officials made it much more difficult for Albertans to qualify for social assistance. Second, the annual value of benefit levels for those who did qualify for social assistance dropped quite suddenly (and then continued to erode over time).  Indeed, a ‘single employable adult’ without dependents received almost $9,000 annually in 1992 (that figure includes tax credits); by 2007, this figure had shrunk to less than $6,000[2]  That’s a very sharp loss in annual income for a very low-income individual.

    Total Welfare Income, Single Employable Person, Alberta (2015$)
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  1. Alberta has much less rental housing than other provinces, and this gap has grown in the past 25 years. In 1990, Alberta had almost as many apartment rental units (on a per capita basis) as the rest of Canada.  Then, beginning in the early 1990s, the amount of apartment rentals in Alberta started to decrease; today, Alberta has just half the number of apartment rental units (per capita) as the rest of Canada.  There are three main reasons for this: the first being, historically, Alberta experienced higher rates of in-migration than other provinces; secondly, the Alberta government was not as keen as other provinces to subsidize housing for lower-income households; and lastly, Alberta has a relatively large number of high-income households (and higher-income households typically prefer to own than rent).
  1. Calgary has much less rental housing than Edmonton, and this gap has grown since the mid-1990s. Beginning in the early 1990s, the number of rental housing units (per capita) in both Edmonton and Calgary started to drop each year; and it dropped more sharply in Calgary than in Edmonton. Today, Calgary has approximately half the number of rental units as Edmonton on a per-capita basis. 
    Stock of Rental Units per 1,000 people
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  1. The many public policy factors raised above helped create the ‘perfect storm’ for a very sharp rise in homelessness in Calgary beginning in the mid-1990s. From the mid-1990s until the mid-2000s, homelessness in Calgary saw very rapid growth.  For example, according to analysis done with Point-in-Time Count methodology, it grew by almost 700% (per capita) during that time. And while it’s always hard for researchers to establish causation (see point #2 of this blog post) it can reasonably be inferred that the public policy changes discussed above played a major role in this increase.

Calgary Homeless Population over time
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  1. In 2008, Calgary became the first Canadian city to develop a plan to ‘end homelessness’; since that time, homelessness in Calgary has decreased. There are three main reasons for that decrease. First, since 2008, a great deal of progress has been made at the community level in Calgary (I’ve previously discussed the very important role played by the Calgary Homeless Foundation as System Planner here). Second, benefit levels for Alberta social assistance recipients have increased since 2008.  For example, total annual income received by a ‘single employable’ household receiving social assistance jumped by more than 30% in 2009; and total annual income for a single adult receiving Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped increased by 30% between 2011 and 2013. Third, Calgary’s rental vacancy rate is very high right now (an indirect result of the drop in the price of oil).

In Sum: The intended ‘take away’ from the presentation is that, homelessness is a complex issue that requires a coordinated and collective response that addresses the local issues through local responses. When it comes to ending homelessness, a community plan that is focused on increasing coordination and collaboration across a system of care and greater integration with big system public service providers is vital. For agencies at the frontline, having a System Planner, such as the Calgary Homeless Foundation, providing the big picture view and coordination matters a great deal… and so too does public policy.


I wish to thank: Rachel Campbell, Louise Gallagher, Ron Kneebone, Kara Layher, Lindsay Lenny, Chidom Otogwu, Steve Pomeroy, Joel Sinclair, John Stapleton, Greg Suttor, Alina Turner and Donna Wood for assistance with this.  Any errors are mine.

[1] This is not to suggest that rent regulation doesn’t play an important role in regulating landlord-tenant relations.  For more on this, see this recent analysis.

[2] Both figures in this paragraph are expressed in 2015 constant dollars.


For a PDF version of the present blog post, please click here: Public Policy and Homelessness,The Case of Calgary

This blog post has been republished with permission from the Calgary Homeless Foundation website.

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
February 23, 2017

Communities across Canada are promisingly moving towards eliminating homelessness. Provinces such as Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, and Newfoundland and Labrador have put together strategies to end homelessness. Locally, Medicine Hat is gaining attention for ending chronic homelessness. But what does ending homelessness mean and how do we know we’ve ended it? Now, we’re beginning to answer that question.

In a major step forward, we, along with the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary (SPP) and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH) have released Canada’s first definition of ending homelessness.

The definition is the result of a multi-year effort, including a rigorous literature review, interviews with individuals with lived experience, several working papers and a national consultation process where policy-makers, service providers, advocates and people who have experienced homelessness provided their expertise. 

In celebration of this collaborative process, we wanted to take this opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of all those that provided input. It is through the expertise of others that we are able to launch a definition that reflects the priorities, perspectives and commitments of those working to end homelessness across Canada.

Who we heard from

In the summer of 2016, we launched a consultation to seek feedback on a proposed definition of ending homelessness found in the working paper “Discerning ‘Functional Zero’: Defining and Measuring an End to Homelessness in Canada.” We received a tremendous amount of feedback. 

We received 158 online survey responses, of which 42 were from people with lived experience.  A further 43 participants took part in two virtual town halls. We also received written responses from the Government of Ontario, Region of Waterloo, and Edmonton Homeward Trust, and the Guelph & Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination.

What we heard

Unquestionably, there was support for a national definition of ending homelessness. 94% agreed that Canada should strive towards a consistent definition of homelessness. As well, 93% agreed that a consistent definition of ending homelessness would improve local responses to homelessness.

However, respondents also identified gaps in the proposed definition. Many noted that a Canadian definition of ending homelessness should include both Functional and Absolute Zero. That is, Functional Zero and Absolute Zero should not been seen as mutually exclusive, but that Functional Zero is progress towards a true end to homelessness.

How Functional Zero and Absolute Zero work together - further explained in the definition document.
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Towards Implementation

Despite general support for a common definition, respondents indicated varying levels of community readiness. Fortunately, respondents provided a number of helpful suggestions to support the implementation of the definition. These include:

  • Developing communication material for the general public;
  • Continuing knowledge dissemination to communities;
  • Providing technical assistance to support local implementation;
  • Developing consistent data-collection tools to support the definition;
  • Partnering with Indigenous communities to refine the definition; and
  • Translating the definition and supporting materials into French. 

Based on this feedback, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness is exploring options and partnerships to develop resources and provide support to communities seeking to implement the definition.

What’s next

The launch of the definition does not mark the end of this collaborative process. As the Government of Canada moves closer to a National Housing Strategy, of which ending homelessness is a key priority, we encourage you to consider, discuss and promote the definition. Collectively, we can ensure that a commitment to end homelessness is not an abstract promise, but a measurable and attainable goal.

As the definition notes: “The indicators provided are envisioned as a starting point for dialogue and will be refined on a go-forward basis.” We encourage you to contact us if you have further feedback or suggestions on how to support communities to adopt the definition locally. 

We’ve also started a discussion about the definition on the Community Workspace on Homelessness; there you can join the conversation with over 1600 experts on homelessness. 

This question came to us from Mike D. through our latest survey.

I’m glad that this question is being asked as it touches on a number of shifts in public policy that restrict the daily lives of homeless people including subsistence strategies such as panhandling, squeegeeing, and sleeping in public spaces. Often, the logic behind these laws contribute to the marginalization and stigmatization of people experiencing homelessness under the pretext of public safety when in reality, these laws have very little to do with protecting the public from the supposed “dangers” that the homeless population bring on society.

Anti-homelessness laws are not a new phenomenon; they can be traced back to old English vagrancy laws. Individuals experiencing homelessness are criminalized in specific ways, from creating anti-homelessness laws, increasing surveillance by police, increasing likelihood of being imprisoned, and discharging people from custody into homelessness. A study of homeless adults in Toronto revealed that while 73 percent had a least one arrest, of those who received a custodial sentence, almost all were sentenced to less than six months. This suggests that people experiencing homelessness are being convicted for minor offences at disproportionate rates. It is important to note that while the homeless population have a high rate of interaction with the criminal justice system, much of it can be attributed to the public nature of homeless life. Research shows that homeless individuals are much more likely to be fined than those who are housed, and even incarcerated for causing a nuisance, public intoxication, loitering, or urinating in public. (Chesnay, Bellow and Sylvestre, 2013; O’Grady, Gaetz and Buccieri 2011, 2013). Marie-Ève Sylvestre’s research on Montreal police reveals that they specifically target the homeless population for these behaviours rather than the rowdy crowds of bar patrons on Saturday nights.

Another pressing problem is the number of people being discharged from corrections into homelessness. The lack of discharge planning and resources for those leaving correctional facilities to support them finding safe and affordable housing makes it exceptionally difficult to abstain from criminal activity. As we shift towards the prevention of homelessness, systems based prevention for individuals transitioning from correctional facilities will be key to stopping the cycle of homelessness and criminalization.

As I explore anti-homelessness laws below it is important to keep in mind that those experiencing homelessness are significantly more likely to be victims of crime than housed individuals. Youth and those who are mentally ill are among those at highest risk of experiencing violent crime. In turn, risk of victimization and the trauma that comes with being a victim of crime can lead to criminal behaviour as a form of protection.

In our modern era, geographers like Don Mitchell have highlighted the links between the criminalization of homelessness and the debates around the privatization of public spaces in cities. Mitchell argues that the purpose of anti-homeless laws is to dispossess the homeless from their right to public spaces in order to privatized these spaces as a way of fueling the economy. While this may sound good for businesses, people experiencing homelessness who use public spaces for their survival are usually not provided with any sorts of suitable alternatives nor further supports than what is already made available. Mitchell calls this phenomenon the “annihilation of space by law”. In order to better illustrate this, I’ll use Canadian examples to elaborate on his point but first I’ll discuss what is meant by anti-homelessness laws.

What are “anti-homelessness” laws?

Mitchell describes anti-homelessness laws as legislation intended to outlaw everything from sleeping outdoors to sitting on the sidewalks to restricting food donations. Such laws were enacted throughout the United States in the 1990s as a response to the explosion of street populations that emerged out of the rise of unemployment and deep financial cuts made to social benefits. These laws resulted in the “annihilation” of public spaces that many within the homeless population rely on for their very own existence. Advocates argue that anti-homelessness laws do very little to address the root causes of homelessness and instead intensify the marginalization of this population. Unfortunately, this draconian legal approach has also been adopted by a number of Canadian municipalities and provinces in order to control how public spaces are used while keeping specific people out. Below are a few examples:

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1. City of Kelowna

As of December 2016, the homeless in Kelowna are banned from sitting or sleeping on sidewalks or otherwise face a $50 fine.  The new regulation expanded on a previous bylaw that restricted  sleeping or sitting on sidewalks between 8am to 9pm (regular business hours). According to the public official, the new bylaw will keep the public safe and businesses from losing customer.

2. Ontario Safe Streets Act

The Ontario Safe Streets Act came into effect in 2000 and was designed to address the growing number of squeegee kids on the streets of downtown Toronto. The legislation prohibits “aggressive” panhandling and anyone attempting, approaching or stopping a motor vehicle for the purpose of offering a service or commodity. However, there are exceptions to the law such as stopping vehicles for charitable purposes is permissible which emphasizes the classist nature of the law as truly being “anti-homeless” rather than being “anti-solicitation”. It also prohibits panhandling of any kind near a bank machine, bus or subway stop, bathroom or parking lot – virtually eliminating urban spaces (often public) as sites to legally panhandle. Despite no evidence of this, the City of Toronto argued that squeegee kids were contributing to urban decay and crime by endangering drivers while negatively impacting tourism and retail businesses.  

3. British Columbia’s Assistance to Shelter Act

The Assistance to Shelter Act was enacted in 2009 in order to enable the police to take people experiencing homelessness into a shelter during extreme weather. While this may seem like a good idea, some advocates argued that the new law was conveniently passed months before the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver as a way to “clear street people” months prior to tourists arriving.

Anti-homelessness laws such as the Ontario Safe Streets Act and the BC Safe Streets Act (2004) are arguably counter-productive as they force homeless people to seek out other, less public and less safe spaces and as a result are more vulnerable to victimization and may be harder to reach out to in terms of service provision. For those unable to pay their fines, imprisonment is a reality which could have an adverse effect on their social benefits. Many homeless simply do not have the means to pay fines (hence survival strategies such as panhandling in the first place).  It cost the Toronto Police Services $936,019 to enforce the Ontario Safe Streets Act between 2000-2010 and only collected $8,086.56 in fines. The public discomfort of witnessing people experiencing homelessness trying to survive doesn’t justify these laws so why are public officials so keen on enacting them? By focusing on Ontario’s Safe Streets Act, I’ll discuss the annihilation of space by law, which provides a response to this question.

Capital accumulation & anti-homelessness laws

According to Mitchell, in order to attract new investments, maintain local capital and protect cities' competitive advantages, governments rely on a number of strategies for growing the economy such as creating tax incentives for businesses and deregulating environmental and labour standards laws. But due to fierce global competition, municipalities are pressured into rolling out further business protection schemes and investing in infrastructure and city amenities to the extent of attracting new investments and keeping existing ones in place. In addition, municipal business strategies often include ways to drive up middle-class spending by appealing to the shopping needs of suburbanites by revamping the image of the city. Consequently, many cities and provinces have turned to the legal system as a way of cleaning up their streets from the “undesirables” by taking away their rights to public spaces in which they often have no other choice but to live in. To gain public support, politicians usually create a moral panic and/or some type of fictional discourse denigrating the homeless population. In this sense, anti-homelessness laws are not intended to help the homeless population but rather to beautify the city as part of wider strategies for attracting and protecting businesses while boosting the economy.

Let’s take Ontario’s Safe Streets Act as an example. Making their debut in Toronto in the summer of 1995, squeegee kids became part the city’s landscape by the following year. Armed with a few drivers’ complaints, Mayor Mel Lastman declared an anti-squeegee kid campaign in 1996 that turned into a full-blown public debate among homeless advocates, drivers, downtown retailers, the media and politicians at the local and provincial level. Then Ontario Premier, Mike Harris, built his case against squeegee kids on a metaphor that depicted homeless youth as the “antithesis of social respectability” while accusing them of negatively impacting tourism and retail businesses. It became clear to downtown retailers and politicians that the only solution to address their presence was to criminalize their income generating activity. The idea that people could earn a living in unconventional ways was completely out of line with capitalist labour relations. In addition, youth street homelessness just did not fit with the appearance of a clean, aesthetically beautiful and safe city that is open for business.

By turning Toronto into a landscape of lifestyle consumption, Toronto has disposed the homeless from their social benefits, from the spaces that they live in and ultimately from their right to exist and do whatever is possible in order to secure their survival. In other words, cities are discriminating against the livelihoods of those in the lowest social strata and rewriting whose lives matter, who is allowed to live in the city and who is worthy of social entitlements. Other scholars such as Roger Keil from York University tend to agree, stating that the goal of anti-homelessness laws is to equate public spaces to spaces for tourists, the inner-city gentry and the urban lifestylers as a means of accumulating wealth rather than maintaining public safety and helping the homeless population.

What’s being done about it?

A couple of years ago, the Coalition for the Repeal of Ontario’s Safe Streets Act launched a petition to repeal the Ontario Safe Streets Act, calling it an “ineffective, expensive and inhumane” response to homelessness. Last year, an Ontario judge wiped out $65,000 in fines amassed by Gerry Williams who was homeless at the time when he accumulated over 400 tickets for non-criminal offences in Toronto. In exchange, Williams must serve two years probation and complete 156 hours of community service for the single conviction of “soliciting in an aggressive manner”. While this is a harsh and unfair punishment, Williams hopes that the ruling will help him get his driver’s licence, improve his credit score and eventually land a job. The Coalition hopes the province will to strike down the law and focus on ensuring that people have access to safe and affordable housing instead.

On the upside of things, in 2015, the BC Supreme Court ruled in favour of a group of homeless people who challenged the City of Abbotsford’s bylaw prohibiting the homeless from sleeping in public spaces. The court recognized the right to public spaces and individuals’ right to safety and security. Last year, Abbotsford passed an amended bylaw allowing people to camp in parks from 7:00pm to 9:00am in order to secure their safety which brought the city in line with the court’s ruling. A similar bylaw in Victoria that prevented the homeless from sleeping in city parks was struck down in 2008 by the BC Supreme Court. The court ruled that the bylaw deprived the homeless of life, liberty and security in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, in 2016 the BC Supreme Court ordered to shut down a camp of about 300 people living on the lawn of Victoria’s courthouse. Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson wrote in his decision that the “encampment is unsafe for those living there and for the neighbouring residents and businesses and cannot be permitted to continue.” While parks in Abbotsford and Victoria are "open" to the homeless population, not all public spaces remain accessible to them depending on the situation as per the BC Supreme Court.

Lastly, the group Homeless in Kelowna continues to oppose the 24-hour ban on sleeping on sidewalks and organized a protest when the new bylaw was being debated at city council. For now, the city is reaching out to community partners to develop a long-term strategy to deal with homelessness and seeking additional funding opportunities as they prepare the 2017 budget. 

These are just a few examples of groups organizing or having organized against regressive anti-homelessness laws. While advocacy groups continue to challenge their municipalities and/or provinces, let’s be clear that the homeless population has the right to public spaces. As cities across Canada struggle to provide safe and affordable housing to its residents, we should at least ensure that public spaces remain what they are – public!

Related posts & links

Image credit: The Phoenix News from the article “Kelowna Bylaw Protest Makes a Storm”

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer. 

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