The Politics of Being Homeless in Canada

“It has been stated that the widespread and rapid growth of homelessness in Canada since the mid-1990s is unprecedented since World War II. While the Homelessness Partnering Secretariat has estimated that there might be 150,000 homeless people across Canada, other experts have suggested that the actual number may be twice as large”

UN Special Rapponteur on adequate housing, February 17, 2009

“Canada alone holds the dubious distinction of having received the strongest rebuke ever delivered by the United Nations for inactivity on homelessness and other poverty issues. In 1998, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights maintained that Canada’s failure to implement policies for the poorest members of the population in the previous 5 years had “exacerbated homelessness among vulnerable groups during a time of strong economic growth and increasing affluence” (p.15).”

Street Level Consulting, Homelessness in Canada

When I started writing this blog, I had no idea the full-scope of the subject I was taking on. Growing up in Toronto in the ‘90s, homelessness – as best I knew – was a part of the fabric of city life. My Dad would take me downtown and we would typically pass-out several dollars in loose change from his single-parent income, to the handful-or-more people we would pass, begging on the sidewalk. This was always a sad reality, but it was also an assumed one. It was a piece of the wallpaper that city-dwelling Canadians of my generation became unnaturally accustomed to. And like so many of the other normalised social ills of my youth, people constantly reiterated ‘it’s waaaay worse in the States!’. Only my Dad – the born-American, Vietnam draft dodger who had settled in Canada in 1969 – would add, ‘It wasn’t like this when I arrived here…’, acknowledging the social decline that led to this blog, long before I was conscious of such a decline.Homeless in Canada

My recent research has had me reading a lot on Canadian homelessness, but two sources have been of particular interest: a report from the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, entitled ‘Shelter: Homelessness in a Growth Economy’, and a slightly older (2000), politically debatable, but well-researched book by Barbara Murphy, called On The Street: How We Created Homelessness (J. Gordon Shillingford Publishing Inc.).

Given the sheer size of the subject matter, I’ve chosen to focus this post primarily on these two sources (as they highlight the very political nature of the issue), with some of my own editorial and experiential additions thrown into the mix. I see this as a starting point and hope others will comment and potentially take-on guest posts themselves, once I have set the table. Like I said, the scope of this issue is huge, and will take a lot of unpicking if we’re to ever bring the country up to par with our European counterparts…

The Reality
Contextually, the Shelter report states, as of 2007, several major studies concluded that there were 200,000 – 300,000 people living on the streets in Canada (though numbers can be difficult to accurately gauge). The official government figures state the total at 150,000, though most organisations involved in related work claim this is a low figure, which only takes into account those who have actually accessed public services related to their situation, such as shelters and emergency services.

“Unlike the United States and the United Kingdom, who have already launched major initiatives on homelessness in recent years, Canada has neglected the issue, as well as other core issues like poverty, urban development and housing security. Instead of dealing with root causes and strategic investments, Canadian government attempted to contain the rapid growth of homelessness with homeless shelters and other short-term, crisis-based services… This strategy has failed.”

– SHELTER – Homelessness in a growth economy, 2007

Whoever you choose to believe – in a country that regularly plunges to temperatures of -25 degrees Celsius for several months of the year – the numbers are horrific, and unacceptable for a G7 nation, which has been regularly voted as one of the best places in the world to live.

Here are a few particularly devastating facts about Canadian homelessness:
• Young people (16-25) account for an estimated 1/3 of the total homeless population
• Overall, 1 in 6 Canadian children live in poverty
• Indigenous people are very disproportionately represented amongst the homeless populations across the country
• Estimates of homeless people who have experienced mental health issues, range from roughly 40%, to over 60%
• Homelessness costs taxpayers between $4.5 – $6 billion/year

The British Comparison
Since moving to London, England in 2006 – my first time in Europe – one of the first things that jumped out at me was the relative absence of panhandling in a city of nearly 8 million people. This is not to say that London doesn’t have its own range of poverty-related ills, but simply that, when it came to people living in the streets, the British had done considerably more to prevent it from occurring… Which got me thinking – the homeless I had always seen as an inevitable fall-out of our society’s way of organising, may not in fact be as inevitable as my experience in Toronto had suggested. This realisation was one of the key trigger points that led me to creating ‘Oh (No!) Canada!’; the realisation that even my progressive Canadian upbringing had not kept me from remaining blind to the manmade social ills that plagued our country.

The ‘political’ nature of challenging homelessness in Canada
I feel it’s important – for Canadian and international readers – to look at the collective national perception of homelessness in Canada, and how it has contributed to the scale of the problem. In practical terms, to actively advocate for an end to homelessness in Canada, you in many ways position yourself at the far left of the political spectrum, as much of the population doesn’t view homelessness as a question of politics, so much as of individual choices and actions (and thus not inherently something the State has a responsibility for). (This relates, more broadly, to other issues related to poverty and class, as well).

In my conversations with the British, this is not easily understood, because, in England, there is very little in the way of a political debate on the question of responsibility for homelessness; Liberal Democrats, Labourites and Tories (broadly) hold a basic agreement that homeless is wrong and should not exist. As a result, there is relatively little of it here (British readers, please challenge this if it doesn’t seem like a fair assessment). Some of Britain’s largest, most mainstream national charities exist exclusively to end homelessness in the country, and these charities are supported by individuals from across the political spectrum. They also campaign both for those actually on the street, as well as those in temporary accommodation, representing a more holistic approach which addresses the systemic causes of homelessness, as well as its most obvious facet.

To claim in the UK that homelessness is primarily the result of individual behaviour and choice, would be to position yourself at the far right, beyond the (at least official) Conservative Party line. In Canada, a relative minority of us would so much as raise an eyebrow to this assertion – even if we disagreed with it, as many Canadians do – as it is so embedded in national political discussion on the topic.

The frame of debate on the issue is drastically to the right of the British situation; as a result of this debate – and our inhospitably cold climate – people die. Lots of people die – in Vancouver alone, roughly one homeless person, every eleven days, in a city of 600,000 people… We can’t control our weather; we can control whether or not people are forced to sleep in it. This is the fundamental argument that needs to be won, if homelessness is to be seriously addressed in Canada.

The Liberal government of Jean Chretien was responsible for the abolition of the former national affordable housing strategy in 1993. A range of reports, including the two I have focussed on, consider this to be at the centre of the spike in our national homeless population.  This has dovetailed with a frozen investment in public housing, the gutting of mental health services across the country and a considerable spread of crack-cocaine and heroin in different cities and towns.  In 1998, our cities’ mayors declared homelessness to be a “national disaster”.

(One could rightly argue that the ongoing persecution of indigenous peoples is also a major contributing factor to Canada’s homeless population, but as this well-predates the problems associated with the more recent wave of Canadian ills, I feel it should be saved for another post.)

There are inevitably political aspects to each of the above factors, however, the choice to abandon the national affordable housing strategy represents a fairly major political decision, saying unequivocally to much of the country ‘you’re on your own’…

“…Existing evidence indicates that Canadian government policy from 1993 onward actually helped to create chronic poverty and housing insecurity, in conjunction with booming housing prices and faltering middle and lower class incomes, while billions of taxpayer dollars were spent on emergency services and other short term measures that have provided little relief to the largest homelessness crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

…Canadian governments helped create today’s homeless crisis by neglecting several risk groups simultaneously: from mental health survivors prematurely discharged during the 1980s and 1990s, to children and youth growing up on Canadian streets, to urban Aboriginal communities were all but abandoned by most levels of government.”

– SHELTER – Homelessness in a growth economy, 2007

What I Think
Change needs to happen on two fronts; public pressure on the government being fundamental, but also increased public sentiment that the status quo is neither inevitable nor acceptable and that much of Europe has found better ways of dealing with it, from which we can learn. The latter is needed, if we are going to achieve the former. So I’m going to put it back to all of you: What will it take for Canadians to make this the pressing issue that it needs to be? What will it take for us to make the political parties realise this is truly a national disgrace and must be addressed? The ‘Shelter’ report makes clear recommendations, but there’s a lot of legwork that needs to be put in, if the majority of Canadian politicians are to be convinced that this issue is even worth their time…

“Canada requires a shift in public consciousness to support governments and non-governmental agencies in the long-term work necessary to solve Canada’s homelessness crisis. Many Canadians know their homeless shelters are overflowing with people, for example, yet this has not translated into a strong political will to change the status quo.”

– SHELTER – Homelessness in a growth economy, 2007


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