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Homelessness and Access to Justice

Sabreena Delhon, Chantel Amato

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

In November, The Homeless Hub, a web-based research library and information centre at York University, released The State of Homelessness in Canada 2013. This report details how factors such as declining wages, reduced benefits, and shrinking availability of affordable housing are driving an increase in homelessness in Canada. Some of the statistics are shocking:

Access to adequate housing is a necessity of life that many people in Canada are lacking. The report emphasizes the need for “housing first” and moves to address the links between homelessness and related hardships. The report also discusses how homelessness does not discriminate – it does not exclusively affect particular types of individuals or families, though people with mental or physical disabilities are disproportionately affected.

Surprisingly, almost 1 in 5 households will experience housing affordability problems. Over the past 25 years, federal spending on low-income housing has decreased while rates of homelessness have risen by nearly 30%. The report estimates that in the last 20 years, construction of 100,000 housing units were cancelled due to funding cuts to key building programs. Many families that could have been helped have been left on the streets.

Homelessness propels individuals through a range of public systems with typically unsatisfactory outcomes making it a social as well as an access to justice issue. According to The State of Homelessness, “we are failing low- and middle-income earners who are unable to purchase a home. What we do not pay in housing costs we pay for in health care, social services, child welfare, corrections, etc.” Early investment or social investment benefits individuals and public systems alike (for more information about social investment please see this paper from our 2012 roundtable series which featured Homeless Hub Director, Professor Stephen Gaetz). Front-end support ideally enables an individual to solve the problems of everyday life – many of which, as we know, are legal in nature.

According to The State of Homelessness, every $10 spent on housing and support results in $21.72 in savings related to health care, social supports, and involvement in the justice system. Put another way, an additional 88 cents per capita would secure 8,800 new units of affordable housing and would very likely decelerate the momentum of justiciable, social and health problems associated with life on margins.

In a piece for Slaw from 2013, Kari D. Boyle also underscored the importance of prevention or early, socially oriented investment. Boyle examined triage; a method widely used at legal clinics to sort clients based on their circumstances and needs. Drawing from the David I. Shulman et al. article, Boyle discussed how legal professionals were working in the community to help people identify their legal risks. Through collaboration with other non-legal professionals, a proactive approach to problem prevention was being advanced.

The State of Homelessness in Canada 2013 gives a comprehensive picture of a national crisis while underscoring the key principle of prevention. The report emphasizes that if and when homelessness occurs, we must move quickly to ensure housing along with necessary support. By linking housing with other, varied forms of social supports the report advances a sustainable response to a critical and multifaceted issue that intersects with Canada’s access to justice discourse.

The full report can be viewed here, also be sure to check out the Canadian Housing First Tool Kit.