Open letter – Barrie

Dear Mayor Alex Nuttal,

I write to express my grave concern with the motion carried at Barrie City Council on May 17, 2023 directing staff to use changes to the City’s By-laws in order to prohibit the use or distribution of tents or tarps in public parks or on public lands without a permit and to prohibit the distribution of food and grocery products in public spaces without the use of a permit. These measures would severely restrict access to basic shelter and food for people living in local homeless encampments and, as such, are in direct contravention of international human rights standards.

I recognize that the motion also attempts to address the chronic homeless crisis in the City of Barrie and the County of Simcoe through appeals for funding from the Province of Ontario and the establishment of cooling and warming centres as well as the provision of central food distribution away from public parks and other public spaces. However, the lack of adequate indoor shelter spaces in the City could result in a dangerous displacement of your most marginalized residents.

I want to draw your attention to the City’s obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of encampment residents. The National Housing Strategy Act (2019) recognized that housing is a fundamental human right and that housing is essential to the inherent dignity and well-being of the person. I want to underline that all Canadian municipalities have a responsibility to uphold the human rights of people living in encampments.

The Act also created the mandate of the Federal Housing Advocate which includes monitoring the right to adequate housing in Canada, and conducting reviews of systemic housing issues.

As such I urge you and Council to explore other alternatives while ensuring meaningful engagement with encampment residents. As you do so, I also urge the City to uphold inherent Indigenous rights as per the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

On February 23rd, I launched a national review focused on homeless encampments. This review offers a framework for encampment residents, advocates and all orders of government to share their perspectives and work together to identify recommendations to ensure the promotion and protection of the human rights of people living in encampments. The review is based on the assumption that all levels of government have a role to play in finding solutions and mobilizing the needed resources. The review will also be an opportunity to provide municipalities with clear guidance on a human rights-based approach to respond to their residents living without housing or indoor shelter.

However, today I am concerned that the proposed approach of the City of Barrie to deny basic shelter to people living without access to housing or other safe and adequate formal shelter options will lead to a worsening of the crisis that your residents are experiencing.

I respectfully call on you and City Council to:

  1. Immediately cease the move towards prohibitions of tents, tarps and food in parks and public spaces without a permit;
  2. Adopt a human rights-based approach to dealing with encampments, guided by the former UN Special Rapporteur’s National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada;
  3. Undertake a meaningful process of engagement with the encampment residents, community organizations and stakeholders before adopting any decisions that affect them; and
  4. Provide encampment residents with access to basic services such as clean water, sanitation facilities, electricity and heat.

I recognize that homeless encampments pose many complex challenges for municipalities. Solutions require the federal and provincial governments to work with and provide resources to municipalities so that housing is affordable, accessible and appropriate for everyone. Adopting a human rights-based approach provides the best road map for finding sustainable solutions while upholding the human dignity of people experiencing homelessness. In the meantime, I encourage you, members of Council and the City employees, to review the National Protocol and apply its principles in your dealings with homeless encampments.

My Office has had meaningful dialogue with various municipalities through the Federation Canadian of Municipalities and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario to gain an understanding of challenges for local governments and to determine what is needed from other levels of government to enable municipalities to implement a human right-based response to encampments.

I would welcome an opportunity to engage in further dialogue and explore how my office and the ongoing review can contribute to the City of Barrie and the County of Simcoe implementing a human rights-based approach to encampments.

Yours sincerely,

Marie-Josée Houle
Federal Housing Advocate

c.c.: Clare Riepma, Ward 1 Councillor
Craig Nixon, Ward 2 Councillor
Ann-Marie Kungl, Ward 3 Councillor
Amy Courser, Ward 4 Councillor
Robert Thomson, Ward 5 Councillor & Deputy Mayor
Nigussie Nigussie, Ward 6 Councillor
Gary Harvey, Ward 7 Councillor
Sergio Morales, Ward 9 Councillor
Bryn Hamilton, Ward 10 Councillor
Director, Legal Services Branch
Hon. Doug Ford, Premier Province of Ontario
Hon. Stephen J. Clark, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Province of Ontario

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