How can cities address the challenge of encampments?
A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation
1. Consult people lived experiences to inform decisions that directly impact them
Tina Dawson, a 52-year-old woman experiencing homelessness for the first time says that encampments work, and they work well. It is vital that people experiencing homelessness are involved in decisions that impact their lives. Leilani Farha, global director of The Shift and the former UN special rapporteur for six years made it her priority to meet with people experiencing homelessness across the world. She says the most important conversations she’s had are with people living and experiencing homelessness.
2. “It’s been a story of displacement, of trauma, of people living in unstable conditions”
Tina Dawson started living at the Central Park in Victoria, British Columbia as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps shared that in March 2020, Victoria had between twenty five to thirty five tents in Central Park, but one month later, the number of tents increased to four hundred and sixty five. Jennifer Jewell currently resides in a shelter hotel in Toronto and says, “There are so many deaths here and there are so many people talking to me on a daily basis about the trauma they’re going through living in this shelter hotel.” It is critical that a “harm reduction, trauma informed, reconciliation approach” is taken when talking about homelessness, Donnie Rosa, the general manager of the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation says.
3. Learning from Finland’s experience
According to Juha Kaakinen, CEO of Y-Foundation and housing expert, in 2008, Finland renovated most of the shelters and hostels into supported housing so everybody who needed housing had access to a flat with their own rental contract. He says in Finland, cities are obliged to provide at least 25% of all new housing to be affordable social housing. And to do that, cities receive state financing for their infrastructure investments. In Finland, there are around 8,000-9,000 new affordable social housing projects every year. This process is instrumental in preventing people from becoming homeless.
4. A machine of systemic discrimination
“There’s a machine in place to keep homeless people homeless. How can you find a job and find a home when you have to protect your stuff all day?” asks Tina Dawson. Jennifer Jewell similarly shares her struggles finding a landlord. She says, “Even though I responsibly paid my rent for 30 years, we’ve yet to find a landlord that has said yes to me, even though the way the subsidies work is that money goes directly to them.” Dr. Andrew Boozary, primary care physician and member of the University Health Network echoes this and calls it a “machine of systemic discrimination,” where it has been about survival.
5. The importance of taking a human rights approach
According to Leilani Farha, “the way that most of us understand living in encampments as engaging human rights is as a deprivation of human rights, e.g., lack of access to a toilet, to showers, to water, to food, to a place to store your personal belongings, to privacy, to be able to make your own decisions about your own life. What we don’t think about with respect to encampments and how they engage human rights is that, in fact, encampments are a claim to human rights and a claim to the right to housing. So, when someone pitches a tent in a park, that is their claim, their expression of their human right to housing.”
Similarly, we have to think about universal access to housing in the same way that we think about access to universal health care, Dr. Andrew Boozary shares. “I find it to be a very strange ethic in our country that we are fine and celebrate ourselves or say anyone who needs an MRI or needs to stay for a week in the hospital, can. And I think that’s important. But that’s tens of thousands of dollars. But we have some aversion to people being able to have the human dignity and access to housing to actually be able to gain the health outcomes and well-being that they want.”