Report from the 2019 Conference of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness

DLS housing lawyer Benjamin Ries was a panelist at the annual conference of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness in Edmonton, AB from November 4-6, 2019. This is his blog entry.

Approximately 1500 conference attendees from all levels of government, academia, social housing agencies, and the non-profit service sector gathered in Edmonton this year to discuss their latest research, ideas, and experiences in the national fight against homelessness and inadequate housing. Despite all of the positive energy that infused the conference plenary sessions, I came away with the distinct feeling that the majority of the institutions represented do not even have an imagination for what it will take to realize the right to housing in Canada.

This year’s conference featured a series of excellent plenary keynotes, particularly by Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, Cindy Blackstock, and Sandy Buchman. In particular, Dr. Blackstock’s presentation should have left few audience members in doubt about some very basic political facts:

  1. Eliminating unequal levels of poverty in compliance with basic human rights law costs public money
  2. Even when a self-identified “progressive” government knows how much money it will cost to uphold equality rights (e.g. of indigenous children), the government may resist spending it
  3. Litigation (supported by social activism) may be the only way to hold government accountable for this type of failure, and that process can take many years

…and yet few seemed ready to apply these lessons to the housing crisis. In general: a shortage of affordable housing (relative to the income and wealth of poor and working class Canadians) was readily and commonly acknowledged. That current national levels of social housing stock (largely frozen since the early 1990s) would need to be doubled or tripled to meet low-income housing need only seems to imply a consensus that no government will ever seriously expand social housing. The consequence of this assumption is that we are stuck with what we have, and we must largely rely upon privately-built housing stock – a market that also currently fails to meet low-income housing need.

Within this dominant paradigm, limited (and well-documented) policy options remain: increase income supports, increase vouchers (otherwise known as portable rent supplements), subsidize an increase in overall market housing supply, and/or regulate new and existing housing stock to achieve fair distribution. I could not attend *all* concurrent sessions, but in those I did attend:

  • Few if any appeared ready to propose or estimate the total necessary cost of demand-side supports or supplements to end homelessness, and
  • Few if any appeared ready to propose the supply-side subsidy or regulation required to make the private housing market fulfill low-income housing need.

Instead, a number of ongoing practices in various parts of Canada were presented as ‘models’ of housing stabilization and eviction prevention. The most troubling example was a pilot project summarized by staff from Mission Services Hamilton, who proposed to “monetize” evictions by ensuring their services met the needs of a private landlord: specifically, the owner of Hanlyn Property Management. In exchange for having the landlord attach a flyer for Mission Services to all of his eviction notices for rental arrears, Mission Services proposed to either (a) urge tenants to repay their arrears if possible, or (b) urge tenants to voluntarily move out rather than oppose the eviction in a Landlord and Tenant Board hearing, in exchange for a good reference from the landlord. Moreover: the landlord confessed that sometimes, he really does not want certain tenants to save their tenancies even if they can afford a repayment plan, because he may find them to be particularly difficult people. He was relieved when Mission Services assured him that he did not need to attach their flyer to the eviction notices for *all* tenants.

Most other non-profit and local government delegates did not attempt to pass off such uncritical commitment to landlord interests as their eviction prevention strategies. However, many did express feelings of powerlessness when it came to addressing what they understood to be discriminatory housing refusals, disrepair, and unfair rental practices in the private market. Perhaps as a natural consequence, some presenters seemed prepared to blame low-income tenants themselves for the housing crisis. For example, a researcher from the University of Calgary and an employee of the City of Calgary suggested they found it both troubling and problematic that so many families living in Calgary’s social housing units and receiving subsidized rents were remaining in place for five to ten years or more, rather than increasing their incomes and getting off subsidy. These two Calgarians speculated that the threat of losing subsidy was encouraging those social housing tenants to remain poor, and preferred the expectation that social housing tenants quickly “progress” out of subsidy and along the housing continuum. “We used to just place these tenants in social housing and not worry about what they did after that… but maybe now… that needs to change,” they wondered.

These attitudes were by no means the only ones on display, and other local ideas offered genuine potential for national application. For example, Ryan Dwyer of the University of British Columbia discussed the potential efficacy of direct cash transfers to certain segments of the homeless population. Terrilee Kelford spoke to the cost efficiency of slab-on-grade “tiny homes” both as transitional rural youth housing in Lanark County, and as supply-subsidized private affordable housing that leverages secondary suite planning policy in neighbouring Lennox and Addington County.

Social justice lawyers and legal advocates for at-risk tenants and homeless people were largely absent from the CAEH conference. Of course, the lack of government-funded civil legal aid and poverty law clinics outside of Ontario, except for the limited clinical programs hosted by law schools across Canada, may be related. But in my view, the use of phrases like “rights-based” seemed all too common among CAEH presenters, researchers, and policy-makers, without any corresponding commitment to see that the beneficiaries of those rights have sufficient access to justice such that they might claim and enforce those rights against public and private actors alike. Civil legal aid – namely, free legal representation to protect the housing rights of low-income persons – should be seen as an essential requirement before any low-income housing system may be termed “rights-based”.

One recent addition to the CAEH, in particular, understands this: healthcare workers. Just as poverty lawyers’ perspectives are shaped by their professional obligation to prefer the individual interests of their homeless and inadequately housed clients above the interests of all others in society, so too are health professionals required to clearly articulate the truth about their patients’ conditions and individual needs without compromise or limit arising from other political considerations. Whether the public will afford an expensive treatment technology may be an administrative question, but that does not necessarily stop a physician from identifying when such treatment technologies are medically necessary. While by no means perfect, healthcare and health policy has the potential to address homelessness in a manner that correctly prioritizes human flourishing over the interests of private capital.

The health sector’s emerging approach to homelessness is informed by direct, ground-level experiences with patients whose lack of adequate, stable housing can be seen in a perspective shared by poverty lawyers: an acute threat to individual well-being and survival that demands urgent action. And when each sector proposes upstream solutions, they do so without losing sight of the need to improve individual outcomes. These links are what make medical-legal partnerships a powerful tool for communities resisting housing injustice.

Now, more than ever, I am proud to remain affiliated with the Health Justice Program through local community legal clinics, St. Michael’s Hospital and Family Health Team. I am also excited to support the launch of the Canadian Network for the Health and Housing of the Homelessness (CNH3), an important organizational pillar within the CAEH and a natural home for front-line poverty lawyers fighting for the right to housing in Canada.

The 2020 annual CAEH conference will take place in Toronto.