THUNDER BAY — In recent years, more and more people across the province are experiencing homelessness and mental health and addiction issues, with barriers such as discrimination making it more difficult to access services.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission is calling on people and organizations with lived experiences of homelessness, access to housing, mental health and addiction, and living with a disability to share their stories to help inform policy recommendations.
“We wanted to hear about some of the issues in those sectors around discrimination, systemic discrimination, and how those issues disproportionally impact people protected by the Ontario Human Rights Code,” said OHRC senior policy analyst Bryony Halpin.
“It is in that context that we really wanted to drill down some of the issues people are facing when they are trying to access housing or care for mental health and addiction issues.”
On Thursday, the OHRC launched a Poverty Point of View survey, which is part of a larger project examining the relationship between poverty and systemic discrimination.
The project started in July with a callout to 230 stakeholders, service providers, and Indigenous organizations asking for written submissions on issues relating to homelessness, poverty, and mental health and addictions.
“The second phase is about hearing directly from people, Ontarians themselves who are experiencing poverty, deep poverty, homelessness, and mental health and addiction disabilities,” Halpin said.
“We really want to hear from people and their stories about their experiences in those systems, if they’ve faced barriers in exercising their right to housing or accessing mental health and addiction care.”
Halpin added that the OHRC believes that when policies and systems are being designed and rolled out to address issues such as poverty and homelessness, they must be based and centered around the experiences of people who live it.
“We really wanted to make sure the stories of Ontarians are at the centre of this work,” she said. “We can’t get to the root of the problem unless we hear first-hand from people who are accessing homeless services or mental health and addiction services.”
The third phase of the project following the survey will include holding key informant discussions over the next several months with organizations and individuals to gain detailed insights into some of the issues people face.
This will include discussions in Northern Ontario, but Halpin said due to resource limitations, those meetings will take place virtually rather than in person.
Halpin said it is also important that the report include a strong Indigenous voice and the OHRC has already reached out to Indigenous leaders and organizations across the province in its call for written submissions and lined up informant discussions within the First Nation, Metis, and Inuit communities.
“We know Indigenous people face unique barriers in housing and homelessness when trying to access services,” she said. “We know a lot of mainstream services are delivered in a way that re-colonizes Indigenous people and entrenches those negative impacts for Indigenous communities.”
The OHRC has developed policy and consultation reports relating to housing and people’s rights on rental housing, but Halpin said the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of these issues.
“We also know the issues are fairly acute right now and have become more severe,” she said. “The impetus was really driven around what we were seeing and what we were hearing from community groups on the ground.”
Many cities across the province, including Thunder Bay, have seen an increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness and community organizations have said there needs to be more access to affordable housing.
The federal government’s National Housing Strategy Act lists access to housing as a human right and Halpin said provincial and municipal governments have a crucial role to play in meeting that obligation.
“There is a right to housing. It is not going to happen overnight, and it requires all levels of government to support the progressive realization of that right,” she said.
“We know extensive and exhaustive research has proven that when you take a human rights-based approach to interventions to housing and homelessness and poverty, they are far more effective and sustainable over time. So we are really interested to see if human rights are the centre of these services systems and where changes will be needed.”
The next step in the project is to compile the information and data gathered into a report with recommendations to various levels of government and service providers.
Halpin expects the report to be released in the spring or early summer of 2023.
“That will echo a lot of the experiences we have heard and make some practical recommendations to government and other duty holders, people who provide services to those experiencing poverty, and then work with community organizations to put pressure on government and duty holders to act on recommendations we have made,” she said.
The OHRC Poverty Point of View survey is available online until Dec. 31. Copies are also available for download and can be filled out and mailed to the OHRC.