I had the honour of collaborating on the Collective Results team that worked on the Gaps Analysis for housing, substance use and mental health services for people experiencing homelessness in Guelph. While conducting key informant interviews with leaders and activists, I learned about a human rights-based approach to housing. Understanding a human rights-based approach to housing has never felt more important. This understanding shaped one of our foundational recommendations in our final report to the City of Guelph. As you read, I’m hopeful it may spark some inspiration or call to action for you too.
A human rights-based approach represents a philosophical shift on how these complex issues are being addressed, from a reactionary approach to a proactive and progressive realization of the right to housing. It sets out a long-term vision for housing and focuses on improving housing outcomes for those in greatest need. It is grounded in the understanding that homelessness and inadequate housing is also often caused by discrimination against, and failures of governments to address the needs and circumstances of particular groups of people, such as Indigenous women and girls, women escaping violence, persons with disabilities, people experiencing mental health and/or substance use challenges,young people, racialized groups, LGBTQ2S+ and others.
There are two important aspects of a human rights-based approach, which inspired our recommendation for the City of Guelph to adopt a human rights-based approach to housing. First, are the values that underpin this approach:
Non-discrimination: emphasizes that access to adequate housing should be free from discrimination of any kind, including race, gender, religion, nationality, disability, or social status. This ensures accountability that housing policies and practices do not unfairly disadvantage any group.
Inclusion: meaningful participation of rights-holders in identifying systemic issues and appropriate remedies that affect them. It intentionally prioritizes the humanity of those most impacted.
Participation: participatory and dialogical approaches, to ensure that people who have been made vulnerable have a voice and are able to live in dignity. This principle emphasizes the importance of community engagement in housing-related decision-making processes.
Empowerment: individuals and communities are empowered to assert their rights to housing, by providing information, education, and resources.
Second, is the legislative component that holds governments accountable. Governments and relevant authorities have an obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil this right by creating and enforcing laws, policies, and regulations. In Canada, the National Housing Strategy Act (NHS Act) commits the federal government to the progressive realization of the right to housing through a human rights-based housing strategy. The NHS Act provides an important parallel means, to courts and human rights tribunals, to hold governments accountable to their obligations under international human rights law (The National Right to Housing Network). Given that the NHS Act is fairly young, there is a need to build the knowledge base at all levels of government regarding a human rights-based approach and fully examine the role of municipalities. This approach can support intergovernmental collaboration to address homelessness. All levels of government are encouraged to improve existing laws and regulations to conform with international human rights and provide remedies for violations.
A human rights-based approach to housing is not just a moral imperative; it's a legal one. Recognizing housing as a fundamental human right underscores the importance of ensuring that everyone, regardless of their circumstances, has access to safe and adequate housing. By embracing this approach, governments and communities can work together to create a world where housing is a right, not a privilege, and where every individual can experience the benefits of a stable and secure home. It was heartening to learn that the City of Toronto, Kitchener, Hamilton, Thunder Bay and Guelph appear to be early adopters of this approach in Ontario.
You can learn more about our suggestions for how the City of Guelph could make progress on a human rights-based approach in our report. For more information about a human rights-based approach and supports for governments, please visit The Shift: Supporting Human Rights-based Housing Strategies and The Canadian Centre for Housing Rights.