A human rights issue

Encampments in Canada are one of the most visible and most serious failures of governments to protect the human right to adequate housing.

Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a noticeable rise in encampments across Canada. Housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable and inaccessible. People are losing their livelihoods and their homes. Many social services and shelters are at maximum capacity.

As a result, more people than ever before are having to live in tents or informal shelters to survive. Many have nowhere else to go.

Although courts and human rights bodies are increasingly recognizing unsheltered homelessness as a human rights issue, people living in encampments face violations of their human rights on many fronts. Their dignity and rights are frequently ignored.

The conditions in encampments, coupled with the underlying failure of governments at all levels to ensure people can access adequate housing, are a violation of fundamental human rights, including the human right to housing.

This human rights crisis is not going away. Canada must do better at meeting people's vital needs for shelter and safety. All levels of government have responsibility to find sustainable solutions that reinforce people's dignity and their human rights, particularly their right to adequate housing.

What are encampments?

We use the term “encampments” to refer to temporary outdoor campsites on public property or privately owned land. These informal settlements result from a lack of accessible, affordable housing.

People living in encampments are in some of the most vulnerable circumstances in our society. Many are dealing with the combined effects of the housing crisis, the health crisis brought on by the pandemic, and a severe economic downturn. They have often faced discrimination linked to the historical legacy of colonialism, racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of marginalization.

Residents of encampments frequently experience harassment and violence from police, bylaw officers, and the public. Most do not have access to basic services like clean water or heat. Some have suffered harm or have died as a result of exposure, fire, overdose, and other threats to life and safety.

These conditions are an assault on their human dignity and amount to violations of the human right to housing.

As articulated in the National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada, encampments represent “instances of both human rights violations of those who are forced to rely on them for their homes, as well as human rights claims, advanced in response to violations of the right to housing.”

In other words, people living in encampments are both experiencing a violation of their right to housing while also making a very visible claim to their right to housing and a place to live, which provides safety, security and dignity.

The Advocate's review on encampments

The Federal Housing Advocate has launched a formal review of encampments in Canada to address this serious human rights crisis happening in cities across the country.

The Advocate's review will focus on systemic solutions to address the factors that lead to encampments, as well as the daily struggles of the people who live there. At the conclusion of the review, the Advocate will submit her findings and recommendations to the federal Minister responsible for housing, and also make recommendations to other levels of government and other stakeholders.

The review will be guided by the principles of a human rights-based approach. The Advocate will collect testimony from people living in encampments, and also engage with civil society organizations that serve them, as well as experts in human rights and housing. The Advocate will also engage with duty-bearers from federal, provincial or territorial, and municipal governments.

At the conclusion of the review, the Advocate will produce a report that will set out:

  • a. The Advocate's opinion and findings in relation to the topics listed above;
  • b. The Advocate's recommendations to the Minister of Housing and Diversity and Inclusion to take measures within the jurisdiction of Parliament – including legislative and regulatory measures, policies, and programs, including but not limited to programs of the National Housing Strategy – in order to:
    • i. Advance the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing in accordance with the requirements of the National Housing Strategy Act and consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act;
    • ii. Provide long-term and appropriate solutions to address the systemic housing issues facing people living in encampments, including the disproportionate negative consequences on Indigenous people; women and members of disadvantaged groups;
    • iii. Uphold the inherent dignity and protect the fundamental right to adequate housing and other human rights for encampment residents and those at risk of homelessness, particularly those who are Indigenous and those who are members of disadvantaged groups; and
    • iv. Provide sufficient supports to allow those living in homeless encampments to transition successfully into long-term and appropriate housing situations that respect their dignity, autonomy and privacy.
  • c. The Advocate's recommendations to provincial, territorial, and municipal governments as well as other actors aim to provide long-term and appropriate solutions to address the systemic housing issues facing people living in encampments.

Contribute to the review

The Federal Housing Advocate’s review will include testimony from people with lived experience. Anyone who has experienced living in an encampment, or organizations who advocate on their behalf, can contribute to the review.

The submission period is now closed. Thank you to everyone who shared their story and ideas for solutions with the Advocate. Your experience will help the Advocate drive change and advance the right to housing for all in Canada.

Subscribe to future updates on the Advocate’s review

Research on encampments

To better understand this critical issue, the Office of the Federal Housing Advocate led a research project to provide critical information on the issue of encampments in five regions of Canada.

The reports confirm that a punitive approach to encampments is failing. Tearing down encampments is unsafe and can amount to forced eviction, which is a serious violation of human rights. The researchers note that this approach does not address the underlying conditions that have led to the growth of encampments in the first place, and it does not respect the rights or increase the safety or housing security of encampment residents. Critically, a punitive approach also removes choice from encampment residents and destroys the mutual aid and community connections they have built to care for one another within a broken system.

Governments and decision-makers at all levels must centre human rights and the right to housing in their approaches to encampments. The reports recommend five key areas where Canada must do better to uphold the rights of encampment residents:

  • 1. Stop the use of policing and law enforcement as a response to encampments.
  • 2. Provide funding and services at all levels of government – to support municipalities that are facing the disproportionate impact of addressing the existence of encampments, and to invest in short and long-term housing options and supports for encampment residents.
  • 3. Ensure the meaningful participation of encampment residents in decisions that affect them.
  • 4. Recognize the distinct rights of Indigenous Peoples and include them in the development of policy approaches to encampments.
  • 5. Address the conditions within encampments and provide access to basic services such as clean water, sanitation facilities, electricity and heat.

This in-depth look at encampments will help the Advocate and decision-makers across Canada take action to better support encampment residents and uphold their fundamental human rights and human right to housing.

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