A symptom, not problem

By Jino Distasi

An increasing number of Canadians face the prospect of homelessness.

Unlike regulated campgrounds, tent cities are without electricity, water and often bathrooms. These makeshift encampments appear to be on the rise with Winnipeg and Nanaimo two recent examples.

The camps have drawn increased media and political attention, perhaps in part due to their prominent locations. For Winnipeg, the tent city is on the grounds of a church near the provincial legislature. In Nanaimo, the prospect of passenger ships welcomed by 'homeless' campers appeared to raise eyebrows and ire in local media stories.

Many argue tent cities should close for health and safety reasons alone. Others counter that such acts further criminalize poverty with encampments merely a symptom of deepening income inequality.

Regardless of the position taken, tent cities present difficult health and social policy challenges with no simple or single solution.

There's jurisdictional overlap when it comes to enforcement. In Nanaimo, the city cited the provincial Trespass Act in an attempt to force residents to vacate. Meanwhile, activists charged that tenters had the right to remain under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

Winnipeg's tent city has placed All Saints Anglican Church at the centre of a debate on what to do. Some called into question the safety and basic cleanliness of the camp or invoked a fear of crime. At the same time, social activists used Winnipeg's camp as a symbol of the lack of tools to address poverty and addiction.

The arguments are very much the same in Seattle, Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto and countless other cities.

After a year of consultation, the Canadian Homeless Partnering Strategy has been renamed Reaching Home. The strategy will provide just over $2 billion over the next decade with the objective of cutting chronic homelessness in half. Importantly, it employs a rights-based strategy emphasizing that every Canadian has the right to adequate housing. 

Evidence suggests contributing factors to becoming homeless include prevalence of mental illness, addictions and poverty (to name only a few factors), and these issues need to be addressed. Using a harm reduction approach and offering a set of supports such as housing first, addictions treatment and expanded mental health programs is a good place to start.

Removing or banning tents or further criminalizing poverty will not solve the problem.

We must focus on finding a more effective means to prevent homelessness from occurring in the first place.

Jino Distasio is an expert adviser with EvidenceNetwork.ca, an associate professor of geography at the University of Winnipeg and director of the Institute of Urban Studies. 

– Troy Media

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