Reports / Articles

December 1998

Homeless People

v.

the Government of Canada and the Government of the Province of Ontario

People's Court, Toronto Division
All Saints Church, Dundas and Sherbourne
December 8, 1998, 10 a.m.

Presiding judges: John Andras, Gian Mura
Lawyer for the prosecution: Peter Rosenthal
Legal clerk: Kira Heineck
Court Reporter: Philippa Campsie

Beric German welcomed the jury and introduced the participants. John Andras explained that although the court has no legal standing, witnesses would be examined under oath. Kira Heineck read the indictment.

THE ACCUSED STAND CHARGED:

1. THAT they, the said governments of Canada and of Ontario, in Toronto and in Ottawa, between the first day of January 1993, and the seventh day of December 1998, inclusive, enacted legislation and adopted policies that resulted in decreased availability of affordable and supportive housing and created increased homelessness, and thereby contravened paragraph 1 of Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Political Rights.

2. AND FURTHER THAT they, the said governments of Canada and of Ontario, in Toronto and in Ottawa, between the first day of January 1993, and the seventh day of December 1998, inclusive, failed to take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of the right of everyone to adequate housing, contrary to paragraph 1 of Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Political Rights.

3. AND FURTHER THAT they, the said governments of Canada and of Ontario, between the first day of January 1993, and the seventh day of December 1998, inclusive, prioritized the housing interests of middle and upper-class persons over those of the poor, and thereby discriminated against the poor, contrary to section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

4. AND FURTHER THAT the said Government of Ontario, between the first day of January 1993, and the seventh day of December 1998, inclusive, cut payments for social assistance to a level below that required to maintain an adequate standard of living, contrary to paragraph 1 of section 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Peter Rosenthal told the court that the defendants had failed to appear.

John Andras submitted into evidence a letter that had been sent to David Collenette, federal minister responsible for the Greater Toronto Area, inviting him to send a representative to defend the Government of Canada in court. He also stated that he had sent messages to Cameron McKinnon, executive assistant to the Premier of Ontario, and Jack Carroll, chairman of the Red Ribbon Task Force on Homelessness, asking them to send representatives to defend the Government of Ontario. These documents were entered into the evidence as Exhibits 1 and 2. The government had sent a written response but had sent no representatives to the court. John Andras therefore entered a plea of not guilty on behalf of both governments and asked the lawyer for the prosecution to proceed.

Peter Rosenthal called the first witness, David Hulchanski, to the stand.

David Hulchanski, a professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, has conducted research on housing and homelessness for about 20 years. He entered the following documents into evidence:

Exhibit 3: A copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed 50 years ago by Canada and other nations. Professor Hulchanski drew the attention of the court to article 25:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Exhibit 4: The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which came into force January 3, 1976. This covenant was designed to give legal force to the provisions contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Professor Hulchanski drew the attention of the court to article 11:

The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent.

Exhibit 5: General comments by the United Nations High Commissioner on the right to adequate housing. This is a legal opinion that defined what is meant by the right to housing. This opinion states that "adequate housing" can be defined by:

    • Legal security of tenure
    • Availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure
    • Affordability
    • Habitability
    • Accessibility
    • Location
    • Cultural adequacy

These comments have been supplemented by legal opinions concerning what constitutes a violation of article 11, namely:

    • adoption of legislation or policies clearly inconsistent with housing rights obligations, particularly when these result in homelessness, greater levels of inadequate housing, the inability of persons to pay for housing and so forth;
    • repealing legislation consistent with, and in support of, housing rights, unless obviously outdated or replaced with equally or more consistent laws;
    • unreasonable reductions in public expenditures on housing and other related areas, in the absence of adequate compensatory measures;
    • overtly prioritizing the housing interests of high-income groups when significant portions of society live without their housing rights having been achieved;
    • acts of racial or other forms of discrimination in the housing sphere.

Exhibit 6: A document titled New Rental Housing: Why Don’t They Build Some? by David Hulchanski. This is a fact sheet on the economics of housing and "rental market failure." The document notes that in 1992, there were 15,700 social housing starts and 2,300 private rental housing starts; in 1997, there were no social housing starts and 252 private rental housing starts. The cutbacks to the housing sector amount to $1.2 billion. The document includes an excerpt from the provincial Conservative’s policy document, The Common Sense Revolution:

We will end the public housing boondoggle that profits only the large property developers and return to a shelter subsidy program for all Ontarians who need help in affording a decent level of shelter. This will eliminate the inefficiencies of government-owned and -operated housing. By spending money on people instead of bricks and mortar, we will be in a position to eliminate the two-year waiting list for affordable housing. [underlining added]

Professor Hulchanski reminded the court that this promise has not been implemented.

Exhibit 7: A document titled Cutting and Gutting Housing Programs, Policy and Legislation: The Record of the Harris Government since 1995. This documents points out six "housing failures" of the provincial Conservative government:

    1. Declining Ontario government housing spending;
    2. End of construction of new co-op and non-profit housing;
    3. Cuts to shelter allowances for welfare recipients;
    4. Cuts in operating funding to existing co-op and non-profit housing;
    5. Downloading of provincial social housing programs to municipalities;
    6. Gutting of tenant protection laws.

Exhibit 8: A Memorandum from the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada, listing the co-op and non-profit projects throughout Ontario that were cancelled by the provincial Conservative government. According to the memorandum, 17,000 units of housing, representing 45,000 potential tenants, were cancelled. Professor Hulchanski presented the list in the form of a scroll which, when unrolled, stretched from one side of the court to the other.

Exhibit 9: Concluding Observations of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Canada, 4 December 1998. This is the third report on Canada’s compliance with the Covenant, which is reviewed every five years. Professor Hulchanski drew the court’s attention to excerpts from this report, which had been written in large letters and posted on the walls of the court:

24. The Committee is gravely concerned that such a wealthy country as Canada has allowed the problem of homelessness and inadequate housing to grow to such proportions that the mayors of Canada’s ten largest cities have now declared homelessness a national disaster.

33. The Committee is perturbed to hear that the number of food banks has almost doubled between 1989 and 1997 in Canada and are able to meet only a fraction of the increased needs of the poor.

34. The Committee is concerned that the State Party did not take into account the Committee’s 1993 major concerns and recommendations when it adopted policies at federal, provincial and territorial levels which exacerbated poverty and homelessness among vulnerable groups during a time of strong economic growth and increasing affluence.

35. The Committee is concerned at the crisis level of homelessness among youth and young families. According to information received from the National Council of Welfare, over 90% of single mothers under 25 live in poverty. Unemployment and under-employment rates are also significantly higher among youth than among the general population.

Professor Hulchanski noted that the Committee’s report on Canada was longer and more harsh than its reports on other nations that had signed the Covenant.

Peter Rosenthal then called Jacqueline, the second witness, to the stand.

Jacqueline testified that she had been homeless for six months. Her landlord had defaulted on his mortgage and left Toronto. The sheriff had evicted the tenants of the house where she was living. She is now living in a shelter, because she cannot afford first and last month’s rent on a room or apartment in another building. She described affordable housing as "impossible to find" and said that she had been told that she had to find housing on her own; there was no one to help her. She stated that she did not consider the shelter a satisfactory substitute for housing, because of the lack of privacy and the overcrowding.

Peter Rosenthal called the third witness, Laura Beard, to the stand.

Laura Beard described the situation of a friend of hers who had had a nervous breakdown and become homeless as a result. He had been in mental health institutions and been discharged to the street, without any support. He had become a criminal in order to get medical attention, because only by breaking the law could he get help and temporary shelter. Ms Beard, with the help of Street Health had gone to court on his behalf and had finally succeeded in finding housing for him.

Peter Rosenthal called Paula Dolezal, the fourth witness, to the stand.

Paula Dolezal stated that she was a mental health outreach worker with Street Health and that she had previously worked at StreetCity. She works with homeless people who have mental health problems. In her opinion, the situation of homeless people is worsening. She cited the low vacancy rate at places such as StreetCity and the lack of facilities for people with addictions. She said that the case described by Laura Beard was unusual only in the way it ended: most people in a similar situation do not find housing or have friends in a position to help them.

Peter Rosenthal called the fifth witness, Lenny Abramowicz, to the stand.

Lenny Abramowicz identified himself as director of Neighbourhood Legal Services. At this agency, the staff deal with problems related to social assistance and to landlord-tenant relations. Mr Abramowicz testified that the so-called Tenant Protection Act (known to many as the Tenant Rejection Act or the Landlord Protection Act), which became law in June 1998, would have the effect of increasing homelessness. The TPA repealed rent control legislation, and allowed landlords to raise rents as high as they wished when an apartment became vacant. According to CMHC statistics, between October 1997 and October 1998, the average increase in rents had been 7%. Since this period included only 5 months of "vacancy de-control," Mr Abramowicz suggested that the next 12 months might see increases of 10% or more in average rents. He added that the TPA gave landlords an incentive to kick tenants out of apartments.

Mr Abramowicz further testified that the TPA had abolished the Rental Housing Protection Act, which controlled the conversion of rental properties to condominiums or owner-occupied properties. He also explained that the current regulations for evictions give tenants only five days in which to file a letter opposing eviction and leave little time for negotiating a compromise with the landlord. He stated that there is no guarantee that the additional money that landlords will get in higher rents will be re-invested in housing. The only guarantee, he stated, is that homelessness with increase.

Peter Rosenthal called Billy, the sixth witness, to the stand.

Billy testified that he had been homeless since October 1998. He had had a job at Beaver Foods but had been injured on the job and was currently suffering from cancer. He was also ill from sleeping outdoors. He had lost his housing after coming into conflict with his landlord. He has since been trying to find alternative housing, but without success. He found hostels difficult because he has hypersensitive hearing and the noise bothers him and because they were too rowdy.

Peter Rosenthal called the seventh witness, Laura Cowan, to the stand.

Laura Cowan identified herself as director of Street Health, where she has worked for four years. She stated that the situation of homeless people has deteriorated in the past few years. She has seen an increase of 56% in the number of people using the Street Health clinics over the period 1995 to 1997, which she attributes to the cuts to welfare rates of 21.6% in fall 1995. These cuts led to evictions as people became unable to pay rent. Street Health also spends more time helping homeless people get identification so that they can get medical help: in 1994, this service cost Street Health $10,000; in 1998, the service cost $40,000.

Ms Cowan stressed that homelessness affects health and cited a Street Health study, in which 500 people were interviewed about their health needs. The study found that respiratory problems, skin diseases, infestations such as lice or scabies, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis are caused or aggravated by homelessness. Overcrowded shelters also spread infections such as influenza. She also cited a study by Dr. Stephen Hwang of St. Michael’s Hospital that looked at the death rates of homeless people in several cities, and found that homeless men between the ages of 16 and 24 were six times more likely to die than young men in the general population.

Peter Rosenthal called the eighth witness, Cheryl White, to the stand.

Cheryl White identified herself as coordinator of the HIV/AIDS harm-reduction program of the mental health facility at 1001 Queen West. She testified that Canada, in particular Vancouver, has the highest rates of HIV infection through intravenous drug use in the world and extremely high rates of Hepatitis-C infection in people who inject drugs. She pointed out that municipal bylaws against squeegeeing or panhandling force people to move from city to city in an attempt to find ways to make money and survive. In her opinion, "Homelessness means death for drug users." Drug users cannot benefit from harm-reduction strategies, which depend on stable housing. Drug users are forced to inject themselves in public places, which are generally unsanitary. They avoid hostels where drugs and alcohol are prohibited. This problem particularly affects Toronto’s Aboriginal population.

Peter Rosenthal called the ninth witness, Bob Rose, to the stand.

Bob Rose identified himself as a worker at the Parkdale Activity and Recreation Centre (PARC). He deals with people who are homeless and those who live in inadequate housing, which he described as "the last stop before people end up on the street." He testified that after the fire at 1495 Queen Street, which killed two people and left 47 people homeless, housing workers struggled for three months to find replacement housing for the former tenants. Because the fire was widely reported in the media, some former tenants were allowed to jump to the top of the list of 47,000 people who are waiting for public housing. This meant that others on the list would have to wait even longer for housing. Mr Rose said that it is extremely difficult to find housing for homeless people and that landlords are becoming increasingly selective in admitting tenants. This means that psychiatric survivors are at a disadvantage in the housing market and are usually passed over.

Peter Rosenthal called Ann Fitzpatrick, the tenth and final witness, to the stand.

Ann Fitzpatrick identified herself as a community worker for the Children’s Aid Society, where she has worked for 13 years. She described the current situation for children and families as "devastating." She testified that in the past few years, there has been an increase of about 30% in the number of families who have doubled up with friends or family, or become homeless. Most shelters for families in Toronto are motels on Kingston Road in Scarborough, where tiny room house up to 8 people each.

Ms. Fitzpatrick recalled that in 1985, families might stay in a shelter for six weeks but now they may stay for a year or more, because of the lack of alternative housing for them. When children are uprooted in this way, they often become depressed or express their unhappiness in acting out. This in turn causes stress for the parents. Some parents ask if their children can be taken into care; others may be stressed to the point at which they abuse their children. There is a 10-year waiting list for family housing.

Ms Fitzpatrick entered two documents into evidence:

Exhibit 11: The Report of the Children’s Aid Society to the United Nations Committee investigating Canada’s compliance with the terms of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The report concludes:

We are alarmed by the trends that continue to place children, youth and families at risk for growing economic and social disadvantage. If we don’t put children and their parents first in terms of a social investment to guarantee rights to housing, income, food and support programs we will perpetuate a costly cycle of disadvantage.

Exhibit 12: "Housing as a Factor in Admissions of Children to Temporary Care: A Survey" by Miriam Cohen-Schlanger, Ann Fitzpatrick, J. David Hulchanski and Dennis Raphael, Child Welfare, vol. 74, no. 3, pages 548-62. This report found that in 18.4% of the cases studied, the family’s housing situation was one of the factors that resulted in children being placed in care and that in 8.6% of the cases, the lack of housing delayed the child’s return home.

This testimony concluded the case for the prosecution.

John Andras, on behalf of the government read excerpts from a document by Jack Carroll, parliamentary assistant to the Department of Community and Social Services and chair of the Red Ribbon Task Force on Homelessness created by the government of Ontario. The document in question was not for distribution.

In this document, the provincial government stated that it is concerned about homelessness and its impact on family and community life. It claims that it is taking steps to implement the recommendations of the Task Force on Homelessness. The government further stated that it spends $100 million on the immediate needs of homeless people and pays 80% of the costs of shelters and hostels. The government is trying to reduce the incidence of homelessness in the long term through initiatives such as Healthy Babies, Healthy Children; Better Beginnings, Better Futures; or Making Services Work for People. The government further stated that it is planning mental health reform to provide better supports for people with mental illness and that employment opportunities will be created through the Ontario Works program. The document also stated that the government believes that "the private sector always has and always will provide the vast majority of affordable housing for low-income Ontarians."

The document states that the government has committed $10 million in new funding to meet the needs of homeless people, $4.2 to municipalities for innovative solutions addressing homelessness (Toronto’s Homelessness Initiatives Fund comes from this money), $2.5 million for new front-line mental health outreach programs, and $3 million in new funding to provide health services to homeless people who don’t have health cards. Toronto has been given $1 million for new initiatives to reduce homelessness.

This document, along with background documents, were not entered as exhibits into evidence, in accordance with the wishes of the provincial government.

Peter Rosenthal summed up the case for the prosecution.

In relation to the first count, he cited the evidence provided by David Hulchanski and others relating to cuts to social housing in 1995 and the lack of compensating programs. He stated that the evidence proves beyond any reasonable doubt that the government is guilty as charged.

The second count is related to the first count, and the same evidence proves the government guilty as charged.

The third count relates to the interests of middle and upper class people. Mr. Rosenthal noted that little had been entered into evidence regarding housing for middle and upper class people and suggested that the prosecution had not made a complete case for this count.

The fourth count relates to cuts to social assistance. The evidence proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the cuts to social assistance have directly contributed to homelessness in Toronto and have contravened the provisions of the Covenant of Economic, Cultural and Social Rights.

The Clerk of the Court re-read the four indictments and asked the jury how it found for each count.

Count 1: guilty as charged (one dissenting vote)
Count 2: guilty as charged (one dissenting vote)
Count 3: guilty as charged (unanimous)
Count 4: guilty as charged (unanimous)

John Andras concluded the proceedings by giving the government an opportunity to respond to the verdict by producing, by January 29, 1999, a plan to respond to homelessness, eliminate its occurrence and prevent it from recurring.

Beric German added that the governments named in the trial should be forced to comply with the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights or be removed from office.

The proceedings concluded at 11:40 a.m.

Respectfully submitted,
Philippa Campsie, Court Reporter

For more information, contact TDRC at tdrc@tdrc.net

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