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Tent encampments prove ‘exactly how broken’ Canada’s system is, federal housing advocate says

A woman with dark hair and glasses, with Canadian flags displayed in the background.
Federal Housing Advocate Marie-Josee Houle, who released a report Tuesday on tent encampments across Canada, wants to see the implementation of a response plan by Aug. 31. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

A new report on tent encampments across Canada calls for urgent action from all levels of government to end what the federal housing advocate describes as a “life and death crisis.”

Marie-Josée Houle said her report released Tuesday is the first of its kind in Canada. The report — titled Upholding dignity and human rights — outlines six calls to action to address ongoing homeless encampments across Canada.

“It is a physical manifestation of exactly how broken our housing and homelessness system is from coast to coast to coast in Canada. It needs urgent measures,” Houle told CBC News.

“Government must act immediately to save lives.”

Houle launched a review into homeless encampments in February 2023, and released an interim report in October. The final report comes as communities across the country grapple with encampments and residents without safe, consistent shelter. 

According to the final report, an estimated 20 to 25 per cent of homeless people across the country live in tent encampments, affecting not just many cities but also rural regions, including northern Saskatchewan, Labrador and Nunavut.

Houle’s report calls for the implementation by Aug. 31 of a national encampments response plan, which ensures that those living in encampments have access to basic necessities, like clean water, food and health care.

It also calls for speedy solutions to permanent housing issues that are driven by federal, provincial and local governments, and which are based on people’s living experience. 

“It is an issue of life and death for a lot of people. And so, we need immediate action and then we need some long-term action,” said Houle.

“Government is… really good at responding on the immediate but then they forget the last piece, which is about the permanent solutions.”

Housing supply not only cause of crisis

Houle said while the federal government has “really couched” housing supply issues as the main cause of homelessness, more complex issues — including colonialism, trauma and poverty, as well as barriers to the shelter system — are at fault.

While she said some temporary housing solutions are better than others, they are often unsanitary and cause people to lose sight of the need for long-term measures.

Staff in hazmat suits clean up the remains of a homeless encampment at 96th Street and 105th Avenue.
Crews remove possessions from an Edmonton encampment in January, in the wake of eviction orders. The city and local police tore down 2,417 encampments in 2023. (Natasha Riebe/CBC)

“Shelters are important. They’re there for emergencies. That’s not a place for people to live,” said Houle.

“Just because people experiencing homelessness are no longer visibly experiencing homelessness to the public, doesn’t mean that they are not vulnerable anymore or that the issue is solved.”

In St. John’s, concerns about shelters aren’t new. A tent encampment first sprung up across the street from Confederation Building, the seat of the provincial government, in October. The encampment later moved to Bannerman Park in the downtown area, and has been reduced from 40 at its height to about a dozen people.

Mark Wilson, a housing advocate who has been volunteering his time with the city’s encampment, said it’s no surprise some people prefer a night in a tent to an overnight stay at a shelter. 

“Some of them are disgusting. So why would you want to be there? There are issues of safety in the shelters, as well. People have their stuff stolen,” he said.

“There’s a reason that people are still here and whatever that reason is, they believe it’s better than what they’re being offered.”

WATCH | In December, St. John’s tent encampment resident Gregory McCain described why he doesn’t feel safe in shelters

tent encampments prove exactly how broken canadas system is federal housing advocate says 2

‘Give me a door I can lock … and hot water,’ says tent city resident who says for-profit shelters aren’t answer

2 months ago

Duration 1:08

Gregory McCain says he’s worried a new task force — which was formed to find local solutions to homelessness and housing — will offer rooms in for-profit shelters to people living at the Bannerman Park tent encampment. McCain warns there are safety issues, including drug use, and says he feels much safer living in a tent than accepting that option.

He agrees that for those choosing a tent over a shelter, adequate supports need to be provided instead of taken away — as happened in St. John’s at the end of November, when city hall briefly closed public washrooms in Bannerman Park, citing increased vandalism. The city reversed its decision a couple of days later, after a public outcry. 

“People need water, people need food, people need heat. And these are basic human rights,” said Wilson. “We had to fight for bathrooms here. That kind of thing just shouldn’t happen.”

New solutions needed for broken system, St. John’s advocate says

He said while a report on tent encampments is “a step in the right direction,” everything hinges on the political will to find solutions.

“Here in St. John’s, this problem is only going to get worse if the federal, the provincial and municipal governments don’t work together to eradicate this issue,” said Wilson.

A man in an orange beanie looks friendly but serious.
Housing advocate Mark Wilson says governments must work together to ensure people have access to long-term housing. (William Ping/CBC)

“Folks here at this encampment are being offered the same solutions that they’ve been offered for months. So, they’re not being listened to. What they want is a home. What they want is a locked door that they can feel safe in.”

Listening to those with lived experience across the country, Houle said, will be critical in successfully addressing the issue.

“What they’re saying is valuable because they do hold a very unique perspective of what it is that they’re living and what the solutions need to look like,” she said.

She is “hopeful” that the recommendations in the report will spark meaningful discussions. 

“It’s not about politics. It is about saving lives. And lives matter. And no one thinks that encampments are a solution. They absolutely are not. But this is what people are choosing. And Canada has to have something in place to make sure that this is no longer what people are choosing,” she said.

“There’s a lot of people watching. There is a lot at stake. And so, I think there’s a lot to get right here.”

The report will now be submitted to federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser, who, according to the National Housing Strategy Act, has to respond in writing by June 12.

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This article is from from (CBC NEWS CANADA)

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