Are we home yet?

 [[{“value”:”There’s no place like home, but how is Canada doing to ensure that everyone has access to a home?
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We’re all familiar with that question – whether it’s on a long drive or vacation or just returning from work. Kids scrunched up in the backseat of a car or on a crowded bus. Are we home yet?

We try to appease them: “we’re close, just another ten minutes.”

When I produced the films Home Safe Calgary and Home Safe Toronto with filmmaker Laura Sky, a teenage girl, who had been homeless told Miloon Kothari, the UN Rapporteur on Housing, that “one of the best things about having a home is being able to say you have one.”

Federal, provincial, municipal budgets have come and gone.

Are we home yet?

To use a baseball analogy Canada has not yet hit a home run on its housing policy. Hundreds of thousands in Canada can’t say they have a home.

But let me step back a bit in time.

That question “are we home yet?” was asked by World War II veterans who, returning from overseas, faced a housing crisis. In a post war period of national pride, it was an abrupt wake up call to the country that veterans faced a dearth in housing.

Bob McEwen enlisted in Edmonton when he was 16, lying about his age. Upon return he and three other servicemen “camped out” on the Vancouver Courthouse lawn to protest the lack of housing.

Other vets protested outside the unoccupied Vancouver Hotel.

Then hundreds occupied it.

In Ottawa veterans’ actions were called ‘Operation Kildare’. Twenty-one veterans and their families took over the Kildare barracks. They rented a flatbed truck to bring beds and belongings into the empty government buildings. A health scare heightened public concern. Two children were infected with polio. There was no refrigeration for their milk.  The vets’ leader Franklyn Edward Hanratty said they were fed up with “the red tape and procrastination of officialdom.” Sound familiar?

Similarly in Montreal, vets and their families occupied empty buildings, and taxi drivers blocked traffic in solidarity.

These actions led to a national housing act and national housing program.

As many of you will know, that program was killed by both the federal conservative and liberal governments in 1993.

When we had that program, Canada built 20,000 units per year.

The result: today we have a deficit of over 160,000 units of housing that we could have built.

But it’s worse than that because at the same time we’ve been losing affordable housing stock: rooming houses, aging housing, and of course properties bought up for what my colleague Gaetan Heroux calls ‘mining the skies’ – perhaps a more apt term for the financialization of housing. Developers building for economic gain not for social purpose, and in many cases assisted by federal funding.

In the early 1990s the slashing of the national housing program coincided with cuts and restricted access to social programs, cuts to welfare rates, an increased reliance on charity and privatization.

Some people call this neoliberalism, others call it disaster capitalism.

The situation was dire.

It was and remains a social welfare disaster.

Twenty years ago, I spoke to an International Housing conference in Toronto. I used a metaphor of a refugee camp to describe homelessness in Canada. The numbers I used here were real at the time.

Here’s an excerpt from that speech:

A disaster has occurred. 40,000-50,000 people are affected. 7,000 are children. There are two to four deaths per week. There is no room left in the camp. Some stay with friends or family. Approximately 1,000 people are forced to sleep outside in the elements year-round. Some have built shantytowns, squats, or tent cities. Some live under bridges or in abandoned buildings. Some sleep on subway grates and get second-degree burns from the steam. 20,000 sleeping bags must be collected each winter for distribution to meet the outside sleeping need.

The conditions inside the camp are substandard. There are only three or four toilets for a hundred people, not everyone has access to a shower. Common areas are filled with mats for sleeping. One morning an Aboriginal man is found dead in his sleeping bag.

In many cases the conditions people are forced to live in do not meet the United Nations Standards for Refugee Camps. Violence is rampant, staffing inadequate, blankets may not be laundered between use. There is poor airflow and inadequate cooking facilities. The tuberculosis infection rate is four times higher than the population not affected by the disaster. A TB outbreak occurs—fifteen men are infected with the same strain. Three of the men die. Other infections—diarrhea, colds, and flus are the norm. Bedbugs have infested a number of the sleeping places. A man is murdered in the camp. Another commits suicide. Two hundred babies are born. Others remain in the camp so long that a palliative care unit has been set up.

As depressing as all this is, this was a period of extraordinary grassroots mobilization, what I often refer to as ‘the wind that shakes the barley’.  There was resistance and interconnected advocacy across the country that won victories and held at bay the worsening catastrophe.

Housing rallies and marches including whenever the federal-provincial-territorial housing ministers met.
Occupations of empty hospitals, buildings and land often leading to the win of the opening of shelters in those sites.
Toronto’s three-year Tent City occupation on the waterfront resulted in a pilot rent supplement program that showed the country that when you offer people housing no one asks to go back to live on contaminated land.
Inquests and community-led public inquiries that exposed conditions and often led to policy wins.
Op-eds such as the one actor and director Sarah Polley wrote in the Toronto Star describing what she witnessed in a 24/7 respite site. It ended with the words to then Mayor Tory “open the damn armouries.” And they opened.
The creation of Homeless Memorials across the country to witness and decry death by homelessness. In Toronto ours has carried on monthly for 24 years. I know other cities like Edmonton also created memorials.
And of course, the win of a federal homelessness program: first called SCPI, then HPI, now Reaching Home.

Have we reached home yet? Far from it.

In the absence of a real national housing program everything is worse. Across the country:

Homelessness numbers have grown.
Shelters are full and both a second, third and fourth tier of shelter with lesser standards have emerged. By that I mean 24/7 respite sites that are congregate shelters, Out of/Inn from the Colds usually operated by volunteers, warming/cooling centres and Toronto now has the shameful honour of using six transit buses all winter long to sleep people.
Encampments have erupted across the country.
The median age of death has dropped to 55 for unhoused men, 42 for women.
New health threats have emerged: tuberculosis, Strep A, Norwalk virus, poisoned drug supply and then of course COVID.

Yet our social justice movements are quiet, some even taking the summer off.

I want to share with you some of my thoughts on why our social movements are stuck.

The hugely marketed Housing First model and ten-year plans, this concept imported from the United States, has been a colossal failure. In most parts of Canada, it was implemented at the same time as point-in-time counts (street counts), streets to homes programs, the criminalization of sleeping/dwelling/begging in public space, restricting the provision of survival supplies (sleeping bags, hot food), and an acceptance and reliance on faith organizations to provide shelter.
Various economic and labour crises meant that the labour movement stepped back from funding and doing housing advocacy.
The same for national churches.
The same for most community organizations that provide services. This I attribute to the frequent merging of organizations and loss of connection to the people they serve, their fear of funding cuts for criticizing governments and to be quite honest advocacy is not taught very much in college and universities.
While the pandemic was a social X-ray that highlighted inequities I recognize it has left a very diminished workforce.

So how to be hopeful? How to ensure we all can say “yes, we are home?”

As economist Seth Klein notes: “It will always fall to social movements to push political leaders to make needed changes.”

We need to regroup, analyze our efforts and fight to win. Our national housing lobbying groups that receive federal funding are, I’m afraid, not going to be the leaders on this front.

We need to revitalize with national unions, faith groups, young people and grassroots groups to mount a fresh campaign that focuses on ‘Housing for all’ not ‘Housing First’ which is incredibly discriminatory.

A small sliver of good news is the anticipated federal re-announcement (the first announcement two years ago) of a new co-op housing program. On a personal note, I’m involved in building 600 units of co-op housing in Toronto, when this funding comes through. However, sadly, in the short-term I feel it necessary to push for cabin communities as a solution to our encampment crisis. We can and must do better.

I hope you will be part of the next wave of activism.

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