Three court decisions have now ruled that the shelter system does not meet the needs of homeless people.
In many Canadians cities, one noticeable consequence of the pandemic has been a rise in the number of homeless people living in encampments. Now three separate court rulings in British Columbia and Ontario have upheld the right of their residents to not be removed.
There is a widespread housing affordability crisis in Canada right now for all but the wealthy. But as the situation for people at the bottom continues to worsen, much of the political response has focused on people with stable incomes and jobs who want to buy a home.
Unlike the United States, Canada does not officially count the number of homeless people in its streets, abandoned lots and parks. But the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, which is based in Calgary, surveyed 14 cities. It found that from February 2020 until last October, the number of people who were chronically homeless rose 34 percent on average in three-quarters of those cities.
“People that I talk to who have been doing this work for 20 years are saying it’s never been this bad,” Tim Richter, the group’s president and chief executive, told me. “Not just in terms of numbers but in terms of the condition that people are in.”
Leilani Farha, the global director of Make The Shift, an international group that promotes the right to housing, told me that Canada has one of the worst records globally when it comes to homelessness.
“Something systemic is going on,” said Ms. Farha, who is based in Ottawa. “Our system is broken.”
The three court decisions, the oldest of which dates to 2020, involved attempts by a regional government, a port authority and a parks commission to remove encampments from lands they control.
But unlike many other judges in the past, the three who heard these cases accepted the evidence that there aren’t enough spots in shelters for the growing population of homeless people, and that existing shelters often don’t meet the needs of many of them or can be more dangerous than encampments.
In a decision issued just over a year ago, Justice F. Matthew Kirchner of the Supreme Court of British Columbia also noted that clearing out encampments without resolving housing issues creates something of a perpetual motion machine.
“Ministerial orders and court injunctions effectively clear out a camp from one location but have not been effective in preventing the re-establishment of camps in another location,” he wrote.
But aside from allowing people in the camps to remain, not one of the three decisions contains any orders to force governments to provide proper housing.
“The unique factors of this case make the issue of an appropriate remedy somewhat difficult,” Justice Michael J. Valente of the Superior Court of Justice of Ontario wrote in a decision released last month, in which he found the encampment bylaws covering Kitchener, Ontario, violated people’s constitutional right to “life, liberty, and security of the person.”
While Mr. Richter and Ms. Farha welcomed the courts’ recognition of the rights of homeless people, they both expressed concern that they could have unintended consequences. Ms. Farha said that some governments might read the decisions and conclude that “if we just had a more robust, barrier-free shelter system, all would be good.”
She added: “But we don’t want people living in shelters. Shelters are meant to be emergency services.”
What effect the cases will have on other cities’ efforts to remove camps is unclear. Toronto has been among the more aggressive cities with its legal efforts. Last year, as my colleague Catherine Porter reported, that included going after a man who built about 100 winter shelters for people living in camps.
[Read: The Carpenter Who Built Tiny Homes for Toronto’s Homeless]
While home buyers often receive more political attention than homeless people, there have been, and remain, efforts to deal with homelessness. Before the pandemic reversed everything, Alberta’s commitment to eliminate homelessness was in fact reducing the number of people without shelter in Edmonton, Mr. Richter said.
“That’s in the rearview mirror now,” he said. “The government stepped away from that.”
But generally the issue finds itself floating between different levels of government with little to no coordination and often insufficient funding.
The federal government’s 10-year National Housing Strategy, which was estimated to cost 78.5 billion Canadian dollars ($58.5 billion) when it was unveiled in 2017, includes a commitment to cut chronic homelessness by half by 2028. But as Vjosa Isai wrote last year in this newsletter, Karen Hogan, the auditor general of Canada, found that while various federal agencies and departments had spent more than 4.5 billion dollars, they had no idea how that money had affected levels of homelessness, nor did they see themselves as responsible for dealing with chronic homelessness.
[Read: Did Billions in Spending Make a Dent in Homelessness? Canada Doesn’t Know.]
“It’s a mess in Canada,” Ms. Farha said. “I work on this stuff globally and I keep coming back to the fact that I think Canada has one of the most difficult housing and homelessness situations in the developed world.”
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A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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