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Everyone deserves a home. That sounds like a simple statement right? Of course, people deserve a home. But, not everyone has one. In fact, 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness every year, and 1.7 million are in housing need – meaning their homes are inadequate or unaffordable.
Chances are, you might know someone who has been homeless at some point in their life. They’ve hit a rough patch, and couch surfed among friends until they saved up enough to get back on their feet. Maybe they’ve split up from a spouse, leaving both in a tough financial situation, and have moved back in with a parent. Or, maybe you know someone whose parent suddenly found themselves ill or facing a financial challenge and had to move in with their adult child. These are all examples of people in unstable housing situations. They may have a roof over their heads, but they don’t have an adequate home.
Homelessness can truly happen to anyone. Young professionals accustomed to the gig economy, contract work and high student loan debt are likely very aware of this. For many of us, missing a couple of paycheques would leave us in a dire situation. Some of us have a great support system of people who can step in to help when times are tough. But many people do not. Homelessness disproportionally affects people with disabilities, women-headed households, and racialized and immigrant communities.
To truly understand the importance of a home, imagine what it’s like to not have one. In the most basic sense, imagine not having the ability to store your possessions. Even if you only had a small number of things to call your own, or even if it’s only enough to fill a large backpack, you couldn’t go anywhere without that backpack. When it rains or snows, you still have your backpack. If you have a job to go to, you have no choice but to bring your possessions with you, because you have no safe place to leave them.
For many of us, missing a couple of paycheques would leave us in a dire situation.
Those possessions are pretty important when they’re all you have. But what’s also important is looking after yourself. Without a home, you have no place to keep clean. No shower to call your own, often no laundry facilities. Without a home, it’s often difficult to find a place to rest during the day. Shelters are closed, and it’s hard to find a place that’s safe, secure and comfortable enough for you to close your eyes.
Nourishing yourself is much more difficult too. I recall a story from a young woman who was homeless with a baby. Someone gave her a can of formula, but she had no can opener to open it. The smallest task becomes infinitely more difficult when you don’t have a kitchen to store your food and dishes. Forget about trying to eat well; you can’t even make a hot cup of tea or share a meal with a friend at home. It can be very a lonely existence.
The federal government’s work in addressing homelessness is long overdue. Funding to build and maintain affordable housing is much needed. The affordable housing sector struggles to finance upgrades and new buildings, and many buildings that are upgraded are not affordable to people who are the most in need. Perhaps one of the biggest wins for the sector, and Canadians in general, is adopting the National Housing Strategy Act and declaring housing as a human right.
Housing is by default inequitable. The quality or size of your home depends a lot on your income, where you’re from or where you live, and what housing needs you have. But by using a rights-based approach to housing, legislation can help balance the scales in terms of access to adequate housing.
Adequate housing is housing that meets people’s needs through services, security of tenure, affordability, habitability, location (proximity to employment opportunities, health care and education) and cultural adequacy. In short, people need to have a home that is more than just a shelter – it needs to be safe and secure and it need to be accessible to the services and amenities required to live. It needs to be a space where one can be one’s self.
According to the United Nations, recognizing housing as a human right means that all people have the “right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity.” It does not mean the Government of Canada will be building a home for every person who is experiencing homelessness. It does mean that the federal government must make steps through policy and programs to make housing available in a short amount of time, and the most vulnerable people are a priority.
For those currently experiencing homelessness, this legislation can impact them in a number of ways. Firstly, it requires the federal government to adhere to a National Housing Strategy. This is important because before the National Housing Strategy was adopted, there was no consistent approach to housing policy across the country. Secondly, it means that the priority in policy must be given to those who are most vulnerable and in the most need of housing.
It also gives the opportunity for people with lived experience of homelessness to have their voice heard, and impact future policies. It creates meaningful accountability and access to justice for the right to housing. It also brings Canada in line with a number of other countries across the world who have declared housing as a human right.
We can’t succeed when some of us are left behind. While success can’t happen overnight, change is happening and the future is brighter. We can all stand up for access to an adequate home.
Sarah White is a mama, communicator and coffee lover, who is passionate about community and social change.
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