Research and Insights

SPRC Submission to the Federal Housing Advocate Encampment Review

May 31, 2023 | All Publication, Housing and Homelessness

The Federal Housing Advocate has launched a review on homeless encampments as a violation of human rights in Canada. As part of the review, the Federal Housing Advocate is seeking input from people deprived of housing and community-based organizations on what is happening in communities and solutions needed from all levels of government. The deadline for submissions is June 20, 2023. For more information or to share your experience, go to the following link Contribute to the review on homeless encampments (housingchrc.ca).

Below is the SPRC Hamilton submission to the Federal Housing Advocate Encampment Review. You can also download a PDF version here.


The Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton (SPRC) was established in 1966 in response to the need for a coordinated approach to social change. Through research, policy analysis, community partnerships and program delivery, SPRC promotes equity, informs policy and planning decisions, and works to increase community engagement to improve the quality of live for Hamilton residents, with a focus on social, health and economic issues.

SPRC responses to the questions posed by the Federal Housing Advocate as part of the review on homelessness encampments are founded in SPRC’s close partnerships with the homeless serving sector in Hamilton and reflect our commitment to centering the experiences of people with living and lived experience (PWLLE) throughout our work.

The Advocate wants to better understand the human rights issues facing people living in encampments. What would you like the Advocate to know about the experience of people living in encampments? If you have lived experience with encampments, please feel free to share your personal story.

Nowhere Else to Go:

  • The need for shelter space far outweighs the current operating capacity of shelters in Hamilton. Between the beginning of April 2022 and the end of April 2023 there was an average of 433 nightly emergency shelter spaces available. According to the City of Hamilton’s Housing and Homelessness Dashboard, there were 1,615 people known to be actively homeless in April 2023. This is up from an average of 1202 in 2021 and 1024 in 2020[1].

Available Shelter Spaces May Not be Appropriate or Accessible:

  • In addition to lack of capacity, emergency shelter beds are inappropriate or inaccessible for many unhoused people for a variety of reasons. In Case Study: Hamilton – A human rights analysis of encampments in Canada, reasons cited for not seeking temporary shelter include inability to bring pets or support animals to indoor shelters, feelings of insecurity in dorm-settings and restrictions related to substance use[2]. The inability of shelters to accommodate different-sex couples also precludes people from accessing temporary shelter[3].
  • In The Regional Municipality of Waterloo v. Persons Unknown and to be Ascertained, 2023 ONSC 670, Justice Valente also determined that the number of available shelter beds alone is insufficient to determine available shelter spaces, and that shelter spaces must be “truly accessible” to the individuals they’re intended to serve, with consideration of peoples’ unique needs such as family make-up or substance use practices, to be considered available.

Displacement vs. Community:

  • The harmful (and potentially deadly) impact of constant displacement on health and wellbeing, as well as the support and community found in encampment settings, is well documented in both literature and legal proceedings across Canada[4]. Expert testimony accepted in decisions out of BC Supreme and Ontario Superior courts outline the psychological harm and physical health risks resulting from constant displacement, including disruption to medical treatment and services, acute conditions like frostbite and heatstroke, exacerbation of mental health diagnoses, and increase in fatal overdoses[5]. Constant displacement and relocation also increase the risk of sexual violence perpetrated against unhoused women[6].
  • Conversely, the reduced transience and congregate nature of encampments have been found to encourage connection with healthcare and community service to meet basic needs, decrease isolation and risk of fatality (particularly in the context of the drug toxicity crisis), increase mental health stability, and foster a sense of community among residents[7].

The Advocate also wants to hear from you about how to address the challenges for people living in encampments. What solutions would you like to see put in place? What changes would you like to see in the way governments (municipal, provincial or federal) treat people living in encampments?

All Governments:

  • Must meaningfully engage people deprived of housing and living in encampments in all stages of solution development. This includes a real stake in decision making, including direction and priority setting, and in planning, researching, implementing, and evaluating any legislative, policy and programmatic solutions as outlined in best practice[8]. Meaningful participation is fundamental to both the success of any solutions developed and to respecting the dignity and autonomy of people who are housing deprived[9].
  • People deprived of housing and/or living in encampments should be hired as consultants and permanent employees and should be brought into leadership roles. They should also be provided with the tools and resources they need to be successful in these roles[10].
  • People deprived of housing and/or living in encampment engaged throughout the solution development process need to be adequately compensated in cash for their knowledge and expertise, with consideration of how compensation may impact ongoing eligibility for any provincial income/housing supports they may receive[11].
  • Solutions from all levels of government must be rooted in the understanding of housing as a human right, and adhere to the obligations outlined in international, federal, and provincial human rights law, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
  • Peoples’ experiences of living in encampments cannot be separated from the realities of the financialized housing market and the current housing unaffordability crisis country-wide. This momentous and dire crisis requires a whole-of-government approach and for all levels of government to step-up to the plate. Negating responsibility and pointing fingers at other levels of government only exacerbates the crisis and causes further harm to those impacted most.
  • All levels of government need to be accountable for tracking housing displacement and its connection to housing insecurity and deprivation within their jurisdiction and to use the tools available to collect, make available, and regularly report on data related to displacement and homelessness. Examples at the municipal and provincial levels include amending building permit applications to require information about whether the building is occupied by a tenant in addition to the type of renovation required along with copies of tenancy notices provided to the tenant and collecting and reporting on tenancy hearings related to displacement.

Municipal:

  • As articulated by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing in A National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada, the forced eviction (defined as either temporary or permanent removal of residents against their will without access to appropriate legal or other protections) of encampments “constitute[s] a gross violation of human rights” (p.19). All governments, including municipal governments, must refrain from enacting new laws and repeal existing laws that allow for forced evictions, including “anti-camping laws, move-along laws, laws prohibiting tents being erected overnight, laws prohibiting personal belongings on the street, and other laws that penalize and punish people experiencing homelessness and residing in encampments”[12]. Instead, municipal government should work with encampment residents to adopt bylaws and policies to ensure the safety and security of encampment residents and their belongings.
  • Considering that the number of people experiencing homelessness far outweigh the number of shelter spaces, and not all shelter spaces available are appropriate or accessible to the people who need them, municipalities must make land available for encampments, and meaningfully engage people deprived of housing to determine encampment locations and specifications that best meet their needs.
    • Municipalities also need to provide for the basic necessities of encampment residents, including drinking water, hygiene and sanitation facilities, resources related to fire safety, and waste management[13]

Provincial:

  • To discourage renovictions and bad faith evictions that displace tenants to increase the amount of monthly rent received for the unit and ultimately lead to homelessness in the context of unaffordability crisis, provinces must amend provincial legislation that govern residential tenancies to extend maximum allowable rent increases to both existing and new tenancies.
  • Given the power differential that often exist between tenants and landlords, provincial governments need to amend residential tenancy legislation and related processes to shift the burden from tenants to landlord in tenancy disputes and evictions. For example, landlords should be required to file eviction notices along with any required documentation (e.g. building permits) with the provincial tenancy authority prior to issuing the notice, as opposed to requiring tenants to file for dispute should a notice be given improperly. This would also allow for better data collection and reporting related to tenant displacement and homelessness across the country.

Federal:

  • As the government with the largest tax base, the federal government must take bold and immediate action to substantially increase federal spending to maintain and develop deeply affordable, non-market housing stock.

[1] City of Hamilton (2023, March 23). Information Report – Ending Chronic Homelessness (HSC23021). https://pub-hamilton.escribemeetings.com/filestream.ashx?DocumentId=354806

[2] van Wagner, E. (2022). Case Study: Hamilton—A human rights analysis of encampments in Canada. The Office of the Federal Housing Advocate.

[3] Moro, T. (2020, August 22). For those living on Hamilton’s margins, tents instead of shelter beds. The Hamilton Spectator. https://www.thespec.com/news/hamilton-region/2020/08/22/for-those-living-on-hamiltons-margins-tents-are-better-than-shelter-beds.html

[4] van Wagner, E.

[5] Abbotsford (City) v. Shantz, 2015 BCSC 1909 (CanLII), https://canlii.ca/t/glps4; The Regional Municipality of Waterloo v. Persons Unknown and to be Ascertained, 2023 ONSC 670 (CanLII), https://canlii.ca/t/jv6dc

[6] van Wagner, E.

[7] The Regional Municipality of Waterloo v. Persons Unknown and to be Ascertained, 2023 ONSC 670

[8] Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. (2021). Guidelines for Partnering with People with Lived and Living Experience of Substance Use and Their Families and Friends. https://www.ccsa.ca/sites/default/files/2021-04/CCSA-Partnering-with-People-Lived-Living-Experience-Substance-Use-Guide-en.pdf

[9] van Wagner, E.

[10] Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Farha, L & Schwan, K. (2020). A National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada, p. 19. https://www.make-the-shift.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/A-National-Protocol-for-Homeless-Encampments-in-Canada.pdf

[13] Ibid.