Building a home in government for the Federal Housing Advocate

Kazumi Moore By Kazumi Moore

This summer, I’m one of many interns working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But that’s not the only thing making my experience at the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) unique. This is the first year the Centre of Human Rights and Legal Pluralism has partnered with the Office of the Federal Housing Advocate (OFHA), for a simple reason: this is the first full year the Office of the Federal Housing Advocate has existed.

The National Housing Strategy Act (NHSA), enacted in 2019, created the OFHA. The OFHA is so new that a Federal Housing Advocate has not even been appointed yet. The NHSA enshrines housing as a human right and charges the Federal Housing Advocate to monitor the progressive realization of the right to housing and research systemic housing issues. My team’s work is focused on preparing the office for the Advocate so they can hit the ground running. For example, I have been writing a lot of briefs on different housing issues for the Advocate to read once they’re appointed.

I wrote one on Canadian jurisprudence around economic, social, and cultural rights. Economic, social, and cultural rights include rights like the right to housing and the right to healthcare – they impose positive obligations on governments. While there is international consensus that the “positive” and “negative” rights dichotomy is false and not useful, Canadian courts still look at positive obligations as “non-justiciable.” But a right to housing isn’t meaningful unless it can be enforced. This allowed me to apply what I learned taking Public International Law at McGill and sparked an interest in how to make positive rights enforceable in domestic Canadian law and jurisprudence.

It has been a summer of non-stop learning. This is my first time working for a large organization and for government, so even the work flows were a learning curve. I had some experience working from home, so I thought it would be a fairly independent process, but one of the things that surprised me the most was how many meetings we are constantly attending. My teammates generously extended me invites to any meetings I was interested in attending, whether or not it had to do with my work, and sitting on these meetings with all of these knowledgeable and accomplished people has allowed me to learn about so many facets of different housing issues. It definitely made up for missing out on in-person connections. It has been great experience for someone like me interested in a career in government.

Multiple actors will always be involved in fulfilling the right to housing because housing is cross-jurisdictional, not falling squarely within either provincial or federal jurisdiction. Building a new office in government clearly requires connections between federal government departments, and our office is also required to consult with civil society organizations, members of vulnerable groups, and people with lived experience of housing need and homelessness. Having a mandate grounded in international human rights law means that we also need to talk to experts in those areas. These relationships are crucial for the inherently collaborative implementation of the right to adequate housing.

Hopefully, the Advocate will be appointed soon – some team members had even speculated they could be appointed before my internship started. But this way, I was able to see everything that goes into building an office from scratch – an experience that not many people working for the federal government have. If everything goes according to plan, next year’s intern will enter a fully-staffed OFHA and jump into all the projects we teed up this summer. Legislatively, there are many things we can’t even do without the appointment of the Advocate and we have been working within those limitations. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the housing crisis in Canada and many people are looking to the OFHA for action. Housing touches everyone, and helping set the groundwork for the OFHA this summer is a tangible contribution that I’ll be able to look back on.

The Humans in the Housing Crisis

Gemma DingwallBy Gemma Dingwall

Since 1876, the Federal Government has been responsible for housing on Indian reserves. In 2016, 27.4% of people on reserves lived in over-crowded housing[1] and 24.2% of First Nations people lived in a dwelling that was in need of major repairs.[2]

There are several contributing factors to these numbers. Firstly, many reserves are in northern isolated regions, which makes for shorter building seasons and costlier materials. Additionally, Indigenous people are also the fastest growing population in Canada and the available housing has not kept up. Furthermore, housing management can be run by people who are not qualified or have too many competing interests to adequately address the house repairs that are needed. However, one major factor is the consistency in which the Federal Government provides inadequate funding for housing and has ignored this issue for generations.

As high as these numbers may seem, they do not fully capture what the housing crisis looks like for those living in it. What those numbers do not provide is a visual of children sleeping on mattresses in living rooms. It does not paint a picture of twelve people living in a three-bedroom house so that people have to take shifts to sleep. It does not show young families waiting years just to have a place of their own. Nor do the stats really show what the inside of a home in need of major repairs looks like, whether that be leaking pipes, mold, holes in the wall or broken appliances.

The housing crisis has detrimental effects in so many areas. Children facing overcrowding have nowhere to complete their homework. Domestic violence victims have no where safe to go. A lack of privacy can lead to mental illnesses like depression. It also acts as a barrier for those looking to recover from their addictions who have no choice but to live with those who are still consuming. Infectious diseases like COVID-19 which can be spread more easily through overcrowded housing, also pose a serious threat to communities

During my internship with the Department of Justice and Correctional Service (DOJCS) of the Cree Nation, I was exposed to some particular ways in which overcrowding affects the justice system. One current challenge for the Cree Nation is that formerly incarcerated people as well as people who have experienced homelessness and who want to come back and integrate into their community have nowhere to go.

If their families do not want them in the home or there is no room in the home, these individuals have no opportunity to rejoin their community. Moreover, because of overcrowding, there are no alternatives—they cannot simply find another place to live. This problem compounds other issues such as formerly incarcerated people are less likely to follow their probation plan when they are far away from their community and do not have appropriate cultural programming or proper support.

To address this issue, the DOJCS has introduced the Tiny Homes Community Project. To start, three of the nine Cree communities will provide ten Tiny Homes for formerly incarcerated people to stay in while they look for more long-term housing. As Tiny Home tenants, they will receive support from Elders and mental health professionals. Each tenant is also required to participate in programming that will help them become a healthy, contributing member of the community.

My role in this project was to work in a team to draft the rights, responsibilities and protocols for the clients of these Tiny Homes. Again, the housing shortage posed several challenges. The Tiny Homes are meant to serve as transitional housing so the residents can integrate into the community. However, many people in the Cree Nation have to wait several years to be given access to a home of their own. This must be balanced with the high demand for the program, so the Tiny Homes cannot be occupied by the same clients for years. Another issue to consider is the process of expelling someone from the program, which may be necessary when the safety of the staff or other tenants is at risk. The reality is the expelled individual will have very few options on where to go; in some cases, they will have nowhere to go.

Overall, there are so many barriers caused by the housing crisis. It affects health, education, child development, rehabilitation, individual safety, familial relationships and overall community building. I know the Tiny Homes is a great program and will help many people reconnect with their community. Unfortunately, I also know that the housing crisis will continue to limit the number of people it serves and impacts its true potential.

[1] “The housing conditions of Aboriginal people in Canada” (25 October 2017) online:  < https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/ > [https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/as-sa/98-200-x/2016021/98-200-x2016021-eng.cfm]

[2] Ibid.

Yaoundé

Alexandra Bornac By Alexandra Bornac

Yaoundé is a beautiful city built around seven hills (namely why I call it the Rome of Africa). From any point of the city you can spot the peak of every hill: a green paradise. The problems lie at the base of this paradise. As the research I conduct here is targeted around HIV/AIDS, gender inequality, land and inheritance rights, I could not resist the urge of observing the living conditions and urban structure in Yaoundé.

It is understood that a clean house and a roof is necessary to safeguard one’s health and it is important in the moments of convalescence. It is not the case here where houses either have no roofs and the windows consist of a stack of old t-shirts stuffed in rectangle holes. Bastos, one of the richest neighbourhoods of Yaoundé, is filled with expensive houses and embassies surrounded by well-kept gardens. In between these imposing and well-built buildings, you find the native population who sold their lands to buy food. Yet, they kept small parcels where they built houses out of dirt which bent towards the ground at the slightest wind blow. They are not painted, nor do they have floors: they are built directly on the ground. The roofs are different pieces of metal put together simply to protect from the rain but there is never a guarantee that it will work.

The other consistent problem is the abundance of garbage lying on the streets or thrown in the rivers. Canals are built between the main roads and the pavement to divert the rain water, but instead they turned into intense smelling garbage disposals. I pass to work a complex of apartment buildings where the smells are impossible to handle for more than ten seconds and the mountains of garbage seem to have grown higher since I got here.

The rich build houses as wide as their parcel of land and as high as to cast a thick shadow on the small houses that the poor barely try to keep standing. The discrepancy is astonishing and the images are worth a thousand words. It reflects the true structure of the society: you are either very rich or very poor. The middle class is non-existent and the poor constitute the majority of the population. Those that have the money prefer to fund soccer fields, churches or private universities. Some will sometimes even pay for street lights in their neighbourhoods but the majority of the Yaoundé areas remain unlit at 7 pm when the sun is gone. Populated areas get their lights from the little bars on the side of the road or the grill fire that the street food vendors use.

Yaoundé is also filled with half-built house: people will start big projects and will stop mid-through due to lack of money. This gives squatters the opportunity to settle in these construction sites. One 5 story building I pass on my way to work every day stands there half-finished and you cannot be oblivious to the sheets attached to the ceilings which play the role of walls.

The saddest image I encountered was when I was walking towards to the biggest park in Yaoundé situated downtown. On my way I could not stop looking at the garbage lying around in front of the prime minister’s office. I tried to look the other way and I only met the eyes of a woman who must have been around 60 years old sitting in the seat of an abandoned car. She was smiling, but her eyes were sad as she was rearranging the sheets so that the rain does not penetrate in what was definitely her home.

A couple of weeks ago, the garden of the house across the street caught on fire in the middle of the night. It was a sort of apartment building with a kitchen outside. While nobody was actually aware of the fire until it reached the height of the house, neighbours gathered as fast as they could to try to control the fire until the firefighters showed up. Yaoundé is the capital and, thus, the traffic is unbearable at almost any time of the day. However, in the middle of the night, any movement by car should take a maximum of 15 minutes. The firemen took 30 minutes to reach the neighbourhood and, luckily, they arrived somehow in time (regardless of the fact that the neighbours had to tear down the wooden fence of the house before it caught on fire).

I can only imagine how long it will take for an ambulance to reach a dying patient. It is not about promptness, it is about the streets that are slowly turning into red dirt. If it rains for more than a half an hour, the streets turn into fast-running rivers (in which I have fallen repeatedly). Two way streets turn into one way streets when all the cars and motorcycles drive only on the good side. The red dust fills the air abundantly every day as the car pass by hurriedly through the narrow and unpaved streets. Each time I am told: C’est la réalité de notre pauvreté.

Parks are rare to be found and those made by the government demand an entrance fee and are barely the size of the law faculty. There is no way to escape the city and its pollution, no way to escape the life and the worries. The paradise is only to be found on top of those hills where the air is still clean, the lands virgin and the quietness is only interrupted by the sound of birds singing the day away.

 

 

 

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