The Shift is transforming how governments respond to homeless encampments in Canada
Homelessness has surged in Canada since the Covid-19 pandemic began. A study of 11 Canadian communities conducted by the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness found chronic homelessness increased 40 per cent between February 2020 and October 2023.
As numbers have exploded, resources have dwindled and shelter space is often unsuitable or unsafe, leaving many without access to adequate housing and with no option except to live in tents or improvised accommodation in encampments. Many of those encampment dwellers have faced fines or criminal charges and some have experienced police-enforced evictions.
“We’re seeing a rise of encampments because we have a housing system that is producing homelessness,” says Leilani Farha, Global Director of The Shift, an international human rights organization based in Ottawa promoting action to end homelessness, housing unaffordability and evictions. “People are really struggling in these encampments because they don’t have the necessities of life and are constantly anxious that they will be removed. At the same time, a lot of people are starting to think we need to support this population. This is a human rights issue. Where is a dignified solution?”
Recognizing that many existing government and police strategies for encampments have been ineffective and uncaring, Farha and The Shift convened The National Working Group on Homeless Encampments (NWG-HE) to encourage municipalities to engage with homeless encampments in a constructive manner and over the long term, reduce homelessness through a human rights approach.
Beginning in January 2023, NWG-HE gathered politicians, policy experts, academics, advocates, harm reduction workers, people with lived expertise as well as Indigenous peoples to develop best-practice protocols for engaging with and supporting those living in encampments. “It takes all those different sectors and actors and perspectives to come up with the right solution,” notes Farha, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing. “And it’s super important to hear from people with lived expertise and experience [because] they know better than any of us.”
In May, the Working Group presented Homeless Encampments: Municipal Engagement Guidance to Canada’s Big City Mayors Caucus and the Guidance was formally launched the following month. (Funding for the project arrived from a Spring 2022 grant from The Catherine Donnelly Foundation.)
Encampments will never satisfy governments’ obligations on the right to housing, but since they exist, the most constructive way forward is one that promotes dignity, human rights and well-being. “The simplest definition is that the right to housing means the right to live in peace and with security and dignity. It’s about putting in place basic needs. That means someone should have housing that’s affordable based on their own income, accessible and should also provide security of tenure,” says Farha. “In the Canadian context, housing should also be culturally adequate and appropriate, so when we’re fashioning housing solutions, we have to bear in mind that what might work for an Indigenous woman might be quite different than for someone who’s a refugee from another country or is born in Canada.”
Designed to be a practical document, the Guidance promotes basic principles of a human rights approach and details ways for municipalities to prevent homelessness, address encampments and support people who live in them as well as exploring alternatives to encampment eviction or removal.
The Guidance notes that while encampments are local, their emergence is a Canada-wide issue requiring a national response and standards. Farha also says that preventing and addressing all homelessness is at the root of the problem and requires far greater co-operation and resource sharing between all levels of government.
Six months after the release, Farha is seeing interest from politicians and municipalities and the Guidance was also shared with the Federal Housing Advocate to inform her review of homeless encampments, expected to be concluded early this year. Moving forward, The Shift will focus on expansion of The National Working Group on Homeless Encampments, continued collaboration on solutions and advocacy and development of a new Intergovernmental framework to address homelessness with additional financial support from The Catherine Donnelly Foundation.