Let’s Talk Housing! The process has begun and we are only months away from what will become Canada’s National Housing Strategy. Called for by the United Nations, anti-poverty advocates, academics, faith-based groups and many others, the strategy is long overdue and a welcome announcement.
The next steps will be crucial, because the government must reach those with lived experience of homelessness and poverty to get their feedback in consultations. Not only is it a right that those most affected be consulted, those who have lived with homelessness have the best knowledge of the failings of our housing system. So far, as consultations begin, the process does not seem to be accessible. For example, there is an online survey called “Let’s Talk Housing”, but it isn’t widely known and some questions are leading.
So how will the survey address homelessness or the need for a rights-based housing strategy? What do those with lived experience of poverty and homelessness think about the survey? We went straight to the source and walked through the survey with two of our board members, Laura Cattari (Hamilton, ON) and Wayne MacNaughton (Halifax, NS). Here’s what they said.
Q. What do you think about this survey and the process of Let’s Talk Housing?
Wayne: In the past, I have attended consultations in Nova Scotia which felt tokenistic – as though I’m being presented with statements prepared by politicians who want to hear how much I like their ideas. In comparison, this Let’s Talk Housing survey seems to be taking a better approach –they seem to be genuinely interested in feedback.
Laura: I find that the overall survey language is kind of vague. There seems to be a key point missing – people become homeless because they haven’t had access to other supports they need. A housing strategy needs to stop people from being homeless in the first place.
Wayne: I agree. The question that they should be asking is: why are people becoming homeless? It’s because they can’t afford the housing that’s available. And the reason they can’t afford housing isn’t just because of mental health or addictions – although those things can matter when combined with lack of income. There have to be multiple approaches to a housing strategy – for example, our current welfare rates are so disgracefully low, we have to make sure people have better incomes so they can afford housing.
Q. What are your reactions to the vision the government has proposed?
Wayne: This is where it feels like the government is saying “here’s what we think, now tell us how much you love it”. I’d like to see this question more open-ended to invite the creativity of those taking the survey.
Laura: What’s completely missing from this vision is any mention of a rights-based approach. If I were the average Canadian, I think I would look at this statement and think “Canada is fabulous”, but for us there are major problems with this statement if there is no mention of human rights. We all have a human right to housing – that should be mentioned right at the start.
Wayne: I agree. There needs to be mention of human rights. I think that the language of rights can scare people, including our politicians. It’s that fear that leads to stereotypes which cause politicians to shy away from the right to housing. But the reality is that everyone does have human right to housing. It needs to be mentioned in the survey – both outright and in the substance.
Laura: I think that the government can get to a place where they understand that they need to move towards human rights. They have to realize that keeping people in poverty really hurts our economy. When you recognize rights, you can stimulate the economy. For example, when people have enough from social assistance, they will put that extra money right back into the economy. It’s up to us to make the link – if you realize rights, Canada will see positive change.
Step two of the survey outlines the following housing themes:
Q. What do you think about this list of themes? Is there anything you think is missing?
Wayne: It’s a pretty good list, but there are a couple of things missing, for example the intersectionality of housing with all the other aspects of poverty – particularly inadequate income supports. Housing isn’t an isolated thing. I’ve been in homeless shelters, I know firsthand that those who are homeless are first marginally housed.
Laura: I see a major theme missing from the list and that’s immediacy. There are things the government can do right now. For example, the government can review all laws and policies and ensure they stop discriminating against those who are homeless or living in poverty. They could take a multi-pronged approach and while building social housing, they could attach a portable housing subsidy – because you’re not going to build new social housing units in the immediate future. And before you can house people in those new units, they need to be able to pay rent.
Wayne: I should also say that those who are homeless are likely going to be doing this online survey with someone else’s help – someone who has access to a computer. Most of those who are homeless are focused on survival on where they will eat or sleep. That’s the reality. And experiences of homelessness can be vastly different. I don’t know what concrete steps the government is taking to physically go to those who are homeless and talk to them. I am concerned that the current process won’t reach those who are homeless, and they should talk to them, they have ideas and opinions on solutions. Too often, those in power don’t or won’t listen to the ideas of those who are marginalized, or discount their views. So the surveyors should actively be doing outreach.
Q. Next, the survey asks participants to rank only three of the above themes that are the most important to you, what are your thoughts on this question?
Wayne: I don’t agree with the exercise where participants are asked to rank themes – it’s far too limiting to only give three options especially when all the options are important.
Laura: I agree. It’s like they’re asking us to choose one person over another while further marginalizing others. For example, where are the considerations of young people who are graduating with enormous student debt? Are we just going to brush those groups aside? If the concern is cost, there are the changes that could be made which have no cost attached. For example, there are cost-free measures such as removing laws and policies which criminalize life sustaining activities of those who are homeless.
Step three asks participants to identify which outcomes best support the vision identified earlier in the survey:
Q. Do you think this is a comprehensive list? Are there any outcomes missing?
Wayne: One major outcome that’s missing is compliance with Canada’s human rights obligations. For example, the government could take up the initiative to ensure all building codes, from the start, accommodate persons with disabilities. As an overall outcome, the government could strive to fulfill the legal human rights obligations they’ve already agreed to.
There needs to be a higher standard of the way we think of our whole housing system in Canada. We need to hold ourselves, and our government, to higher standards. The world keeps shifting, and our responses need to be flexible. We need to think beyond small steps, we need to think bigger and more holistically about the way people in poverty’s housing situations are affected by things like lack of income, lack of childcare, food insecurity and other factors.
Laura: It seems as though some of these categories have been falsely divided. For example, inclusivity shouldn’t be isolated, it should be included in every category. A proper housing strategy would consider all marginalized groups. There is also no mention of a priority to end homelessness or immediately end existing discrimination in housing laws and policies.
Q. Do you have any reactions to the questions asked in this section?
Wayne: The way they’ve divided types of housing don’t necessarily mean the same things to everyone across the country. There are also some categories missing: those who are couch surfing; multi-generational housing; and others. Consider that you may live in poverty but own a home – for example, in some communities those who are poor may own a home that’s been built by Habitat for Humanity. It would have been helpful if you could type in your form of housing to make sure everyone is included.
There also seem to be marginalized groups who aren’t listed here, for example, LGBTQ individuals, racialized persons, youth. While this question is in response to who is answering the survey, I imagine the government would want to know what other key groups are engaged in this process. It would be better if the government asked people something like: is there anything else you want to add about your identity? And gave the option to write it in.
Laura: This question brings me back to Wayne’s earlier point about those accessing the survey: I wonder how they’re going to engage those in shelters or living rough. Like the National Household Survey, you could have some problems, because those accessing this survey need internet and a computer – and they need to know it exists.
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