The Advocate’s review of homeless encampments

Publication Type

Interim report

Full report as a PDF

Executive summary

The Federal Housing Advocate launched a systemic review on February 23, 2023 to examine the human rights issues facing encampment residents in Canada. This review, pursuant to subsection 13.1(1) of the National Housing Strategy Act (the NHSA), is informed by research on homeless encampments that was commissioned by the Office of the Federal Housing Advocate (OFHA) and released in December 2022. This research confirmed a human rights crisis, including a violation of Indigenous rights, of encampments is unfolding in communities across Canada.

In the context of the review, the terms “homeless encampments” or “encampments” refer to temporary outdoor accommodations for individuals and groups of unhoused and unsheltered individuals that have been established – often without permission – on public property or privately-owned land. The growth in number and size of such encampments is the consequence of a severe lack of accessible, affordable, and adequate housing. The Advocate recognizes that there are often challenges with terminology , but has chosen in her Interim Report to use the language which is most commonly in use for now. She recognizes, however, that the term homeless encampments may not reflect everyone’s reality and differs from terms commonly used internationally, such as informal settlements.

This is the first systemic review undertaken by Advocate under the NHSA. Inspired by the human rights principles that underpin the NHSA, the review was designed to create space for meaningful engagement and amplify the voices of encampment residents as rights-holders. People who are unhoused bring an essential perspective and unique understanding of the systems that deny them their rights. Thus, they “must be recognized as central agents of the social transformation necessary for the realization of the right to adequate housing.”

Since February, the Advocate has engaged in a number of events across the country to hear directly from encampment residents and local community advocates in Montreal, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Toronto, and Calgary. Recognizing the significant over-representation of Indigenous people living in encampments, the Advocate has also taken part in a number of targeted engagements with Indigenous people and their representative organizations. The Advocate met with national Indigenous organizations as well as numerous local Indigenous organizations and advocates during her visits to Montreal, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg as well as during her visits to British Columbia (August 2022), the North (October 2022) and Saskatchewan (July 2023).

In April, the Advocate launched an online portal to invite individual and organizational submissions to inform this review. Recognizing that many people living in encampments would face challenges accessing this tool, she partnered with the Shift and local organizations in Victoria, Vancouver, Hamilton, Peel, Ottawa, Gatineau, Montreal, Moncton, and Halifax to support encampment residents in sharing their experiences and proposals for solutions. With the help of these local partners and others, 313 people with lived experience in encampments have made submissions. In addition, 53 advocates, organizations and municipalities shared their perspectives and observations.

Finally, the Advocate has engaged with duty-bearers across all levels of government regarding their human rights obligations with respect to housing and encampments.

The Advocate encouraged the participation of municipalities across the country through her engagement with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), the FCM’s Big City Mayors’ Caucus, and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO). As well as receiving written responses, the Advocate and her team met with a number of municipal leaders and officials working to put in place effective responses to the human rights challenges posed by encampments.

In a number of instances, when municipalities were taking actions that appeared to contravene the human rights of encampment residents, the Advocate sent letters of concern to mayors, and municipal councils, the relevant provincial authorities, and provided comment in the media.

Throughout the process, the Advocate and her staff also met regularly with federal officials to keep them informed about the process of the review and to learn more about federal efforts to develop a response.

The Advocate has engaged with provincial human rights commissions in Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec. In April, she also met with provincial and territorial senior officials of the intergovernmental Forum on Housing and informed them about the review and committing to sharing the Interim Report with them.

The interim report is not intended to capture all the experiences of encampment residents across the country. Rather, it is intended to provide the foundation for a deeper reflection and the identification of human rights-based solutions. The Advocate’s final report (expected in early 2024) will present her findings as well as recommendations for action. The Advocate is committed to issuing concrete findings and recommendations in her final report that will result in increased dignity, security, and protection for the human rights, including the rights enumerated in UNDRIP, of people who are unhoused and living in encampments. The Advocate looks forward to continuing her engagement in the coming months in preparation of this final report.

What we heard

The report summarizes the experiences and information shared with the Advocate during the in-person meetings and the 366 submissions received from individuals and organizations between April and July 2023.

Encampment residents, advocates and municipalities shared their experiences and concerns regarding:

  • Barriers to secure housing
  • Inadequate emergency shelters
  • The homelessness crisis for Indigenous Peoples
  • Inadequate Program Funding for community services
  • The need for human rights-based action and more accountability
  • Encampment evictions and clearances
  • Violence, stigma, increased isolation and risk of harm
  • Safety and security risks in encampments alongside peer support
  • Gendered experiences in encampments
  • Unmet basic needs of encampment residents
  • Absence of services and supports

Governments at all levels in Canada have a duty to uphold international human rights standards as well as the Charter rights for everyone in Canada, and especially for people who are experiencing greater disadvantages and marginalization. The conversations the Advocate had and the submissions she received in recent months reinforced concerns about the human rights of people experiencing homelessness and living in encampments.

The increase in encampments and unsheltered homelessness across Canada reflects a lack of government action and inadequate allocation of resources for essential programs and services over the course of many years. By operating in bureaucratic silos and isolated jurisdictional territories, all governments are also failing in their duty to protect life. An all of government approach including all jurisdictions working together is the only way forward to successfully address the interconnected issues such as the poisoned drug supply, the opioids crisis, extreme poverty, colonialism, racism and encampments.

Today, the fundamental right of encampment residents to exist as equal members of society, and to live a life with dignity is at stake in Canada. Any failures to provide access to basic services and meet the essential needs of encampment residents are not only a breach of the human rights to housing and to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, they often amount to cruel and inhuman treatment.

All governments must act to stop forced evictions of encampment residents, to stop the criminalization of people who are unhoused, to combat discrimination, stigma, and negative stereotyping of people who are unhoused, and to ensure access to legal remedies for rights violations related to housing.

In their efforts to address homelessness and improve access to housing, many governments are not upholding the rights of encampment residents to participate in decisions that affect them.

The rights of Indigenous peoples, women and gender-diverse people, older people, racialized people and people with disabilities are being particularly affected.

Governments are often failing to uphold Indigenous Peoples’ right to self-determination, including their right to design and implement their own housing policies and programs, and to access adequate financial resources to implement them. This has a further negative impact on access to culturally-appropriate housing.

The Advocate is particularly concerned about failures to respect, protect and fulfill obligations related to:

  • The right to life and dignity protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms;
  • The rights of Indigenous Peoples as protected in the UNDRIP and UN Declaration Act;
  • The right to formal and substantive equality protected in ICCPER, ICESCR, other international treaties, the Charter and provincial human rights codes; and
  • The right to adequate housing as protected in the ICESCR and recognized in the NHSA.

Encouragingly, a number of municipalities are taking steps to adopt plans and programs, in line with human rights, to address encampments and eliminate homelessness as quickly as possible. The Interim Report will highlight a number of these promising practices to demonstrate that human rights-based approaches can be effective. However, much more is needed, on a nationwide scale.

Potential solutions

The Advocate heard that there is an urgent need for solutions designed and implemented using a human rights-based approach to uphold the human rights and dignity of encampment residents while simultaneously addressing the systemic failures that are contributing to the situation. The Advocate heard many times that there is a need to change the conversation about encampments and to recognize that encampments are a symptom of systemic failures and not the fault of individuals.

The Advocate recognizes that solutions ultimately require housing that is adequate as per the United Nations definition, but which is in very short supply right now. While medium- to longer-term solutions to provide housing adapted to the needs of unhoused individuals are sought, there are actions needed immediately to protect the human rights of people in encampments to live in dignity, security and be free from discrimination.

Many potential solutions were shared with the Advocate. In considering these solutions, it is critical remember that the complexity of the issues will require holistic whole-of-government approaches.

The Advocate recognizes that municipalities are the first line of response to encampments, but are often not empowered and generally not adequately resourced to meet the complex housing and public health crises growing in their communities.

The Interim Report highlights a number of potential solutions which urge governments to:

  • Ensure human rights-based action and greater accountability
  • Meaningfully engage with encampment residents
  • Treat encampment residents with dignity and respect
  • Uphold the rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Provide for encampment residents’ basic needs
  • Recognize the right for encampments to exist, and end sweeps, clearances and evictions
  • Uphold encampment residents’ right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental
  • Improve encampment safety and security for all residents
  • Prioritize long-term right to adequate housing solutions
  • Ensure equality and non-discrimination in the delivery of supports and services for people experiencing homelessness
  • Improve emergency shelter conditions and access

Next steps

The report is intended to provide the foundation for a deeper reflection and engagement with rights holders, advocates, Indigenous governments and representative organizations as well as provincial, territorial, municipal and federal governments. These discussions will provide an opportunity to fill in any gaps and in turn inform the findings and recommendations that will be included in the Advocate’s final report.

Following the conclusion of the review in early 2024, the Advocate will submit her findings and recommendations to the federal Minister responsible for housing, but also make recommendations to other departments, other levels of government, and other stakeholders. She will continue to work with rights holders and other stakeholders to 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.

The Minister is required to respond to the Advocate’s report and the Advocate will follow up to monitor implementation of her recommendations.