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CANADA: High Housing Prices Swell Ranks of Homeless

Am Johal

VANCOUVER, Feb 12 2008 (IPS) - Canada is continuing to see increases in homelessness and precarious housing situations across the country as rents increase and incomes stay level, but intergovernmental bickering over housing policy is overshadowing the need to take leadership on the issue, according to critics.

The Toronto-based Wellesley Institute released a report card in early February which raised the issue of growing housing inaffordability – a leading cause of evictions and homelessness. Renting costs outpaced renter incomes in six of the 10 provinces.

Though new home construction reached near-record levels in recent years, there was very little affordable rental and almost no new social housing built.

The federal government cancelled its national social housing programme in the early nineties in an era of deficit cutting. Even with annual surpluses restored, senior levels of government have not responded to the calls for action by the large urban centres in Canada where the strains of homelessness are exacerbated.

Though there are no verifiable figures of how many homeless people are in Canada, the number is likely to be in the 200,000 range. Approximately 65,000 of the homeless are between the ages of 16-25. In fact, the federal government does not do an official homelessness count in the country, nor are provincial governments obligated to do one.

Civil society advocates are also arguing that Canada is leading the charge in trying to stop international institutions from adopting complaint procedures for optional protocols which set human rights obligations on housing.

During a visit to Canada in October of 2007, Miloon Kothari, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, wrote in his general observations, "Everywhere that I visited in Canada, I met people who are homeless and living in inadequate and insecure housing conditions."

"On this mission I heard of hundreds of people who have died as a direct result of Canada&#39s nationwide housing crisis," he said, noting that the United Nations had recently labeled homelessness and inadequate housing as a "national emergency".

Nations that sign on to optional treaty protocols such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights often invoke the term "progressive realisation" to justify the time lag between domestic policies meeting international standards. Scott Leckie of the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions has written that progressive realisation is used as "an escape clause from the obligations generated under the Covenant."

Canada, along with other G-8 countries, has openly worked within the international system to deny a complaint mechanism on option human rights protocols related to economic, social and cultural rights.

The Maastricht Guidelines on Violations of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights contend that, "As in the case of civil and political rights, States enjoy a margin of discretion in selecting the means for implementing their respective obligations…the burden is on the state to demonstrate that it is making measurable progress toward the full realization of rights in question. The State cannot use the &#39progressive realisation&#39 provisions in Article 2 of the Covenant as a pretext for non-compliance."

Canadian law professor Craig Scott has written, "Canadian governments have long invoked averages and medians as adequate accounts of the state of human rights enjoyment in Canada, thereby showing how little understanding (or sincere attempt to understand) there is of the very nature of human rights…That Canadians on average are not homeless, on average have adequate nutrition, on average go to adequate schools, or on average raise their children in a dignified way says nothing at all about whose human rights are being respected and whose are being violated."

According to Michael Shapcott of the Wellesley Institute, only one out of every 100 new homes being built in Canada today can be considered affordable. The incomes of renters are decreasing while rents are rising in urban centres beyond the cost of inflation. Despite surplus budgets, 20 percent of Canadian families live in poverty, with aboriginal people, women and recent immigrants disproportionately represented.

The federal government has been cutting housing policies since the early nineties. In 1993, the government cancelled funding for new co-ops and non-profit housing and capped its expenditures at two billion dollars annually, according to the Wellesley Institute.

Earlier this year, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities released a report describing the situation in Canada and called for the federal government to step in. The federation issued a national action plan urging federal and provincial governments to adopt policies to support middle-class housing and finance houses for the poor and homeless.

The plan called for a five-step, 10-year programme to eliminate "chronic homelessness" and urged the federal government to continue financing housing programmes due to expire this spring.

Gary Jobin, a coordinator with Bladerunners, an aboriginal youth construction training programme in Vancouver&#39s inner city that is involved with the national Raise the Roof Campaign to end homelessness, told IPS: "Ninety percent of our kids that enter our programme are homeless or couch surfing. It&#39s a national travesty."

"Through this program we can get them a damage deposit and secure stable housing for them as they earn their first paycheques. As a resident of the Downtown Eastside, more and more people are on the street including children and families. Homelessness has doubled in this region," he said. "There are kids with kids living in basement suites who need school supplies in September. There are kids going to school hungry."

"We have enormous drop-out rates by grade eight. Thirty-seven percent of kids in the inner city have visible signs of tooth decay by age five compared to four percent on the west side of Vancouver," Jobin said.

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