Homeless encampments in Canada amount to a human rights crisis exacerbated by threats of violent displacement and inaction of government at all levels, the federal housing advocate said Thursday as she launched a review of the issue.
It marks the first formal review undertaken by advocate Marie-Josée Houle since she was appointed by the federal government in February 2022 to lead the newly formed Office of the Federal Housing Advocate.
"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," a statement from her office said.
The review takes place against the backdrop of a visible rise in homeless encampments since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the statement said. Housing is increasingly unaffordable, shelter systems are stretched to their limit and more people than ever are living in tents to survive.
The advocate's office pointed to the dismantlement of homeless encampments during winter, calling it a "serious violation human rights."
"All levels of government have an obligation to end this crisis," her office wrote.
Encampment residents have their dignity and rights frequently ignored, Houle's office said.
"They face harassment and violence from police, bylaw officers, and the public," it wrote. "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."
The advocate's announcement came as the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users issued a statement Thursday demanding an end to what it describes as police-led street sweeps aimed at removing people from a Downtown Eastside encampment.
Hamish Ballantyne, an organizer with the group, said police accompanied city workers as they walked along East Hastings Street on Wednesday, telling people living there to pack up and leave, citing a bylaw prohibiting structures on sidewalks.
But no tickets were issued for bylaw violations and city workers later indicated any decision to leave would be voluntary, he said.
While almost everyone stayed put, Ballantyne said he watched as city workers threw one resident's belongings into the garbage after the man got out of his tent because he was frightened by the police presence.
"Nothing is voluntary when there are 20 cops in front of you," Ballantyne said in an interview.
He said encampment residents have nowhere else to go, and it seemed "unusually cruel" that the city would try to evict people during a cold snap, with temperatures falling below zero this week.
The street sweeps have been escalating since last July, he said, since Vancouver's fire chief ordered the removal of tents set up along Hastings Street sidewalks.
Sgt. Steve Addison said officers were there at the request of the city to keep the peace while crews worked in the area.
"We have assisted in this way a number of times over the past several months."
There has been a "sharp increase in guns" in the Downtown Eastside in recent days, Addison added, saying officers were there to ensure everyone's safety given the potential for conflict.
Ballantyne said his message for the federal housing advocate for her review is to prioritize the voices of people with lived experience, as they understand the linkages between tent encampments, the toxic drug supply and the housing crisis.
The advocate's decision to make encampments the subject of her first review signals the important connections between the issue and a right to housing, said Estair Van Wagner, an associate professor at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School.
Van Wagner said the national scope of the review could prove "crucial" in spurring a much-needed departure from the "punitive" approach governments and law enforcement often take in response to encampments.
"We won't have just a snapshot of what's happening in one local community on the ground or one province, but we'll actually get a sense of what needs to be happening more broadly," said Van Wagner.
Van Wagner was one of the authors commissioned by the advocate to draft a series of reports intended to act as the basis for her work on encampments. The reports released in December outlined a number of recommendations, including an end to the use of police as a response to encampments along with more housing and support options for their residents.
Those reports note the federal government has adopted the right to adequate housing but has yet to explain what that right means for encampment residents.
"We haven't actually seen a lot of action on the ground. So, the more we have concrete recommendations by people like the advocate in these types of positions, the more that hopefully we will see pressure on government to respond," Van Wagner said.
In Toronto, the municipality's ombudsman has said the City of Toronto must treat people living in homeless encampments with dignity and respect as it clears temporary dwellings from local parks.
Toronto police and city staff have clashed with encampment residents and their supporters when clearing encampments from parks in the past. The city has repeatedly said encampments are not safe.
On Thursday, Houle wrote that even as courts increasingly recognize some of the human rights issues at stake, she is "very concerned" some governments are not taking necessary steps to protect people experiencing homelessness.
A judge in Ontario, following the lead of courts in British Columbia, ruled last month that encampment residents had a constitutional right to shelter outside when there are no accessible and available indoor spaces. In the absence of those spaces, dismantling the encampment would be considered a violation of the residents' Charter rights.
The encampment review will collect testimony from people living in encampments and engage with experts in human rights and housing, the advocate's office said.
When it's complete, Houle will deliver her findings and recommendations to the federal minister responsible for housing.
— with files from Brenna Owen in Vancouver
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2023.
Jordan Omstead, The Canadian Press