Kitchener-Waterloo

Human rights of homeless ignored by cities fighting encampments, says former U.N. special rapporteur

Cities fighting encampments are missing the mark by ignoring the human rights of people experiencing homelessness, the director of an international human rights organization focused on housing says.

‘Rather than imposing a solution on people, people should be included in a discussion,’ Leilani Farha says

Tents are set up in a vacant lot. Two people can be seen facing away from the camera - a man and a woman. A green and white GO train is seen in the background.
An encampment at the corner of Victoria Street and Weber Street in downtown Kitchener as pictured on Tuesday, July 26, 2022. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Cities fighting encampments are missing the mark by ignoring the human rights of people experiencing homelessness, the director of an international human rights organization focused on housing says.

Leilani Farha's organization — The Shift — has produced a comprehensive framework, providing governments with guidance to effectively address the financialization of housing in accordance with human rights law.

Farha said The Shift is about getting  cities to embrace a different approach for dealing with encampments.

"To not criminalize, to not treat as charity cases, the population of people who are unhoused, and rather to treat them as rights holders, to treat them with dignity and respect, to understand that they have and should have a say in what their future looks like," she told CBC K-W.

"That includes determining whether a sanctioned encampment should be proceeded with and if so, where that encampment should be. I just want to make that clear, because that's really relevant in the Kitchener context, obviously."

Several tents, including a blue tent as a focus, pictured on a plot of land.
There are about 60 people living in tents on a regionally owned property in Kitchener. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Craft a solution

Trial dates of Nov. 7 and 8 have been set for a judge to hear the Region of Waterloo's application to evict people who live in an encampment on regional property at the corner of Victoria Street and Weber Street in Kitchener.

There are about 60 people living in tents on the regionally owned property. It started with one person in January and grew in the spring. The region alleges people living on the site are in breach of the Municipal Act. The region had previously given occupants a June 30 deadline to leave the property.

Speaking specifically about this case, Farha — a former United Nations special rapporteur on the right to housing — said the most successful solutions will be those that are crafted with encampment residents.

"Rather than imposing a solution on people, people should be included in a discussion about what might make the most sense for some people," she said. 

"So, what's most important is for the region, and actually the City of Kitchener already has a mechanism that could be used if it's not being used for this purpose, which is to sit with the encampment residents and talk with as many of them as possible and figure out what they as a group or as individuals want and expect that is in keeping with their human rights." 

People set up encampments because they have nowhere else to go, they feel they need to live there for a variety of reasons.- Leilani Farha, director, The Shift

According to Farha, "it's amazing what can happen through a process like that." 

She said the City of Kitchener has established a lived expertise working group and they are well positioned to talk to encampment residents. 

"Many of them have been homeless previously. I think some might still be homeless and so I've met some of them … they're an amazing group … they are well positioned to help the city and the region figure out what this community wants."

Meanwhile, Farha says all levels of government must have an understanding of what's required under international human rights law and the right to housing when encampments arise. 

She says while an encampment will never satisfy the obligations of ensuring everyone has access to adequate, secure and affordable housing — which is a requirement under international law — it does not mean that the solution is to eliminate encampments.

"People set up encampments because they have nowhere else to go, they feel they need to live there for a variety of reasons," she said.

"So, when an encampment is established,  and let's recall, it is the harshest of living, the fundamentals to life and dignity must be provided … the basic necessities have to be provided on the understanding that this is to preserve human life and human dignity."

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Desmond Brown

Web Writer / Editor

Desmond joined CBC News in October 2017. He previously worked with The Associated Press, Caribbean Media Corporation and Inter Press Service. You can reach him at: desmond.brown@cbc.ca.

With files from Hala Ghonaim and Kate Bueckert

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now