Bernie Pauly is a professor at the University of Victoria’s school of nursing; Corey Ranger is a Victoria outreach worker. Both are RNs.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently said that COVID-19 has unmasked “fundamental gaps” in society.
Over the past three decades, government has disinvested in social housing and dismantled the social safety net.
These decisions, combined with privatization and gentrification of the housing market, have created a housing affordability crisis in which income has not kept pace with rising housing costs in cities like Victoria and Vancouver.
COVID-19 not only revealed the housing affordability gap, but it also exposed an over-reliance on emergency responses to homelessness.
The importance of housing to staying safe was made even more visible by COVID-19. The United Nations declared housing to be a front-line defence against COVID-19 due to heightened vulnerability to COVID for those without homes.
The Canadian National Housing Strategy Act (NHSA) makes clear that the Government of Canada recognizes the right to adequate and affordable housing.
Given the importance of housing as a primary public health response to prevent COVID, the federal government could have taken immediate action to implement a right to housing and eliminate homelessness for those left unsheltered.
Canada is a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, defined as “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.”
Housing, adequate income, water and food are fundamental human rights and basic prerequisites for health.
Without a federal government mandate for rights-based approaches to housing, the responsibility for housing is left to provinces and municipalities.
Since COVID, provincial and municipal policy responses have ranged from promising evidence-based housing-led responses to abandonment, and enhanced enforcement. This is confusing, contradictory and counter-productive.
A promising housing-led response was the mobilization of hotels to create temporary and permanent housing with wraparound supports by repurposing space through leasing and purchasing of hotels.
This collaborative approach between B.C. Housing and regional partners is well aligned with the principles of Housing First, a rights-based approach to housing.
When people are directly and unconditionally provided housing without the expectation of sobriety alongside a range of individualized supports and respect for choice, the evidence shows that health including mental health improves, stability is increased, substance use and harms are reduced.
In spite of the mobilization of hotels, not all of those in need of housing were provided with an offer of housing and those remaining were directed to camp in public parks.
They were abandoned to figure out their survival in a time of reduced emergency services such as access to food and water and without access to basic resources for washing hands, laundry, showers, and toilets.
Visible camping in the parks reflects multiple policy failures exacerbated by COVID-19. The decision of Victoria council to allow 24/7 sheltering is in line with provincial and international public health advice to allow people to shelter in place to mitigate COVID-19.
Further, this action reduces the stress associated with constant moves and need to re-establish connection with services.
However, provincial and municipal actions that perpetuate evictions, injunctions and increasing emphasis on bylaws and policing are costly and ineffective approaches to homelessness.
Emergency responses and managing homelessness is costing Canadians $7 billion per year. Further, research has demonstrated that the use of bylaw and enforcement to manage homelessness contributes to mental stress, poor sleep and other health concerns.
We can do better.
During COVID-19, we have an unprecedented opportunity to call on all three levels of government to work together and enact a right to housing.
We need governments to take immediate action to 1) ensure a living wage and/or guaranteed annual income, 2) rental supplements, 3) rental market controls, 4) purchase of properties which can be repurposed rather than allowing them to be bought by private investors, 5) modular housing, 6) initiatives, outreach and liaison that builds capacity for community problem solving and provides basic prerequisites for health for those who are homeless.
Such solutions are cheaper, more humane, and healthier than addressing homelessness through the lens of criminal justice.
Governments have shown us what they can do in times of crisis. Now is the time to act on the right to housing and the root causes of homelessness.
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