By Julia Beazley

Millions of Canadians live in core housing need – housing that doesn’t meet their needs or those of their family. Upward of 300,000 are homeless. The United Nations has identified that Canada falls short in a key area: homelessness is a domestic human rights crisis. The UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing noted that “Canada is one of the few countries in the world without a national housing strategy.” It has been argued by successive federal governments that this is because housing is the jurisdiction of our provincial governments according to the Constitution Act of 1867.

Stephen Harper’s government has shown willingness in recent years to take the kind of leadership across similar jurisdictional lines that a national housing strategy would require, most notably in the favourably received National Action Plan to Combat Trafficking and the Federal Framework for Suicide Prevention.

With charities, municipalities and provinces having identified both need and willingness, it’s time the federal government exercised its unique gathering influence to facilitate development of a coordinated, simplified response to the housing and homelessness crisis that engages a range of programs and involves all levels of government. Jurisdictional arguments can no longer be an excuse for inaction.

Mr. Harper’s government has directed much-needed funds toward a range of housing initiatives through its’ Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS), which we hope will be renewed in the upcoming budget. This important initiative delivers short term funds to specific projects and is invaluable to frontline service providers and those who benefit from their good work.

But the HPS alone is not the solution. Affordable and emergency housing in Canada is a patchwork of private, municipal, provincial and federal programs. And still, homeless shelters are full beyond capacity with people sleeping in church basements, building entrances or on heating grates to get out of the cold.

The existing patchwork is both inefficient and insufficient to properly address homelessness and housing need in Canada. We need a comprehensive plan, with coordinated nation-wide action on affordable housing,

If all goes as scheduled, on February 27 Parliamentarians will vote on Bill C-400, an Act to ensure secure, adequate, accessible and affordable housing. A vote in favour will send the bill to a Parliamentary committee for further study, leading Canadians one important step closer to development of the much-needed strategy.

Bill C-400 is complementary to existing federal housing initiatives, including the HPS, and calls on the federal government to bring together the leaders of provincial and aboriginal governments, private and public sector housing providers, and non-governmental organizations currently serving Canada’s homeless to establish a national housing strategy.

We’ve been close before. A few years ago this bill’s predecessor, Bill C-304, made it through Committee but died on the Order Paper when the last federal election was called.

When The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada appeared before the Standing Committee on Human Resources in support of C-304, we argued that government – particularly the federal government – has a key role to play in leading by example, in priority and in policy. It is the role of the federal government to establish the “30,000 foot level” vision and direction for the nation and together with the provinces, territories and Aboriginal communities, to agree to standards and measures for housing adequacy and availability across the country.

Next to government, the Church is the largest provider of care and shelter to those who are experiencing poverty and homelessness. There are literally hundreds of churches, ministry organizations and street level agencies that are addressing Canada’s housing and homelessness crisis in practical ways. But they can’t do it alone or in isolation.

We believe both the Church and government have unique responsibilities and roles to play in meeting the needs of vulnerable Canadians, and finding solutions to the problem of homelessness. The failure of either to fulfill those responsibilities will mean that Canada’s housing and homelessness crisis will worsen.

In May 2012, the House of Commons voted unanimously in support of Motion No.331, “That, in the opinion of the House, the government should: (a) keep with Canada’s obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the right to housing under the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; (b) support efforts by Canadian municipalities to combat homelessness; and (c) adopt measures to expand the stock of affordable rental housing, with a view to providing economic benefits to local housing construction businesses.”

Bill C-400, rooted in a strong human rights framework, is an appropriate follow-up to that commitment. In Committee, the bill can benefit from the input of other parties. The bill’s sponsor, NDP MP Marie-Claude Morin (Saint-Hyacinthe–Bagot)  has indicated she is willing to work with all parties in order to bring a bill to third and final reading with language that all sides of the House can support.

Only the federal government can establish the required coast to coast to coast vision and call together the leaders of our nation to seek agreement for coordinated action. Mr. Harper, Canadians need your leadership on this issue. More than 300,000 need it now.

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