Upholding dignity and human rights: the Federal Housing Advocate's review of homeless encampments

Publication Type

The Advocate's final report on encampments in Canada calls for a National Encampments Response Plan and makes final recommendations to governments at all levels.

Final report

Executive summary

Canada's homeless encampments are a national human rights crisis.

A growing number of people in Canada are having to live in tents or informal shelters to survive due to a lack of affordable housing, limited support services, and nowhere safe to go.

There has been a significant rise in encampments in the last five years, and particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic. Encampments are now being reported across the country – in both large and small municipalities, as well as in more rural areas.

Encampments are not a safe or sustainable solution for housing. For people living in these encampments, every day is a matter of life and death.

At the same time, encampments represent an effort by people who are unhoused to claim their human right to housing and meet their most basic needs for shelter. For reasons discussed in this report, encampments are often people's only housing option, or the only option that meets their needs for safety, security and dignity. Many encampment residents have highlighted the sense of community they experienced when living in an encampment with others facing similar struggles.

Recognizing the severity of this crisis, the Federal Housing Advocate launched a systemic review of encampments in February 2023. This systemic review has been carried out pursuant to subsection 13.1(1) of the National Housing Strategy Act.

In October 2023, the Advocate published an interim report setting out the context of the crisis and documenting in detail what had been heard through the engagement process. The engagement process consulted directly with people living in encampments, local community advocates, Indigenous governments and representative organizations, and duty-bearers across all governments.

This final report includes the Advocate’s conclusions about the factors leading to the rise in encampments and, most importantly, the concrete measures that must be taken by all governments to fulfill their human rights responsibilities in order to reduce or eliminate the need for encampments.

What has emerged is a clear picture of a two-fold human rights crisis.

First, encampment residents are at dire risk of harm due to the failure to uphold their basic rights.

Second, the encampments exist only because of a larger, systemic failure to uphold the right of all people to adequate housing without discrimination.

The engagement process made it clear that Canada has the capacity to solve this crisis. Encampment residents are acutely aware of the measures required to meet their most pressing needs. What is lacking is sufficient political will, resources and coordination.

The absence of effective coordination between the many agencies, departments and jurisdictions involved limits the effectiveness of responses to the homelessness crisis. While municipalities are on the frontlines in responding to encampments, they don't have all the powers and resources they need to provide human rights-based services. Provinces and territories must work closely with municipalities and the federal government must play a leadership role.

This national crisis calls for a national response.

National Encampments Response Plan

The Federal Housing Advocate is recommending that the federal government establish a National Encampments Response plan. The plan must drive urgent change that responds to the Calls to Action developed in this report and addressed to all governments in Canada. The Calls to Action have been developed as the result of extensive consultation with encampment residents, community organizations, and municipalities across the country.

The Federal Housing Advocate calls on the federal government to establish a National Encampments Response plan by August 31, 2024, that will:

  • Act immediately to save lives.
    • Ensure that everyone living in encampments has access to the basic necessities they need to survive and live in dignity, and to services to protect their physical and mental health.
    • This includes access to clean water, sanitation, food, heating and cooling, accessibility supports, healthcare, and harm reduction.
    • Ensure drop in-shelters are accessible 24/7 throughout the year to provide people with a dignified place to rest, take refuge from the elements and access services.
  • End forced evictions of encampments.
    • Forced encampment evictions make people more unsafe and expose them to a greater risk of harm and violence. Evictions destabilize people, remove them from their support systems, and cause them to lose the tools and equipment they need to survive.
    • Immediately end forced evictions of encampments, particularly on public lands. Forced evictions are a violation of human rights, as contained in section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the right to adequate housing under international law.
    • Put in place alternatives to removal of encampments that are designed following meaningful engagement with encampment residents to find solutions that meet their needs.
    • All governments must ensure that laws, regulations and bylaws do not further destabilize encampments nor expose residents to greater risk of harm and violence.
    • The role of police and by-law officers should be de-emphasized in responses to encampments. Police, by-law enforcement, and emergency service need clear direction to halt the confiscation of belongings, surveillance and harassment, which violate the human rights of encampment residents. All enforcement measures undertaken must be compliant with human rights standards.
  • Work with all governments and provide support to municipalities.
    • Immediately convene meetings with provinces, territories, and municipalities to coordinate an all-of-government response.
    • Develop all encampment response measures in consultation and cooperation with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis governments and their representative organizations.
    • Commit the maximum available resources and funding to address this crisis.
    • Ensure municipalities have the resources and powers they need to respond to the urgent needs of encampment residents and uphold their human rights.
    • Include clear targets and timelines for the National Encampments Response Plan.
  • Respect the inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples.
    • All governments must commit to upholding the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and work in consultation and cooperation with First Nations, Inuit and Métis governments to fully implement its provisions. In particular, all governments must work with Indigenous governments to more effectively respond to the distinct needs of urban First Nations, Inuit, and Métis individuals, particularly those who are unhoused and living in encampments.
    • Recognize the jurisdiction of Indigenous governments to determine, develop, and administer programs and services related to housing and homelessness and support First Nations, Inuit and Métis governments and representative organizations to develop and provide self-determined, culturally appropriate housing and related services and supports, including in urban centers in partnership with existing Indigenous service providers.
    • First Nations, Inuit and Métis governments and representative organizations must be fully supported to develop and provide self-determined, culturally appropriate housing and related services and supports, including supports in urban centers.
  • Respect and uphold human rights.
    • In the absence of adequate, affordable and accessible housing alternatives, all governments must recognize that people have a right to live in encampments.
    • People living in encampments must play a leading role in decision-making processes that affect them. All governments must implement ongoing and meaningful engagement with people living in encampments and those who support them.
    • People living in encampments must have access to timely, effective recourse when their rights are threatened or violated.
    • All governments and political leaders at all levels have obligations to promote and protect the human rights and dignity of people experiencing homelessness. Leaders must refrain from actions and language that further stigmatizes the residents of encampments, or people experiencing homelessness, and exposes them to greater risk of rights violations.
    • All governments must publicly commit to applying a human rights-based approach to encampments that recognizes and addresses the distinct needs of First Nations, Inuit and Métis individuals, Black and other racialized individuals, women, 2SLGBTQI+ individuals, people fleeing gender-based violence, youth, seniors and people with disabilities. These approaches must align with Canada's human rights obligations as affirmed in international human rights instruments, the Charter and domestic law.
  • Offer people permanent housing options as rapidly as possible.
    • Immediately develop and fund adequate housing solutions and supports so that people living in encampments can be re-housed as rapidly as possible.
    • These housing solutions must meet the definition of adequate housing which includes security of tenure, affordability, accessibility, suitable location, availability of services, habitability and cultural adequacy.
    • In the absence of available adequate housing, all governments and service providers must work to address the structural barriers that result in existing emergency shelters not being accessible or appropriate for all people who might choose to use them.
  • Address the root causes of encampments.
    • Encampments are the symptom of systemic failures – all governments must urgently prioritize investments in adequate housing and support services to prevent and address homelessness. All governments must work together to address the systems that drive homelessness, including systemic racism and discrimination and failings in the Canadian child welfare, corrections, and healthcare systems.
    • The National Housing Strategy must be greatly enhanced and its programs must prioritize the elimination of chronic homelessness and reduction of core housing need, with a focus on Indigenous peoples and disadvantaged groups, to fulfill commitments under the National Housing Strategy Act.
    • All governments must ensure that they are monitoring the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing and put in place measurement systems that include accurate, comprehensive, and replicable data on homelessness.

Next steps

Specific Recommendations are outlined in the report to enable governments at all levels to implement the Calls to Action.

This report's findings and recommendations will be submitted to the federal Minister of Housing, Infrastructure and Communities. The National Housing Strategy Act specifies that the when the federal government receives the report of such a systemic review, the Minister responsible for housing must respond within 120 days.

This report is an urgent call to action to governments at all levels to uphold the human rights and the right to housing of encampment residents.