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Downtown Eastside Seeks Foreign Aid

Vancouver group asks UN to help homeless Canadians.

Jean Swanson 18 Oct

Jean Swanson is a coordinator of Carnegie Community Action Project, which is accountable to the 6,000 members of the Carnegie Community Centre Association, most of whom live in hotels, social housing, in shelters and on the streets of the Downtown Eastside. Rolf Auer, Wendy Pedersen and other CCAP members helped draft this letter, with the help of Shelagh Day.

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UN's Kothari: asked to 'intervene.'

[Editors note: The Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) met with United Nations representative Miloon Kothari this week and appealed to the UN to intervene on behalf of homeless people in the Downtown Eastside. After detailing the failure of federal and provincial governments to provide social housing, CCAP organizer Jean Swanson asked the UN representative whether "there's another country that could donate housing" to Canada. Swanson's presentation also detailed how two of the richest jurisdictions in the world are violating the human rights of its poor and homeless residents. This opinion piece is drawn from her presentation.]

We ask you, as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, to intervene on our behalf with the Vancouver municipal government, the government of British Columbia, and the government of Canada, to urge them to end homelessness and improve housing conditions in our neighbourhood, the city, province and country.

Homelessness in Vancouver was estimated in 2007 to be at the level of approximately 1,500-2,000 people sleeping outside at night and hundreds more in shelters and couch surfing. It is expected to reach 3,000 by the year 2010.

Last year, the provincial government set up a committee of government, business, and community-based organizations to determine how to implement the commitments. This group was called the Inner-City Inclusivity (ICI) Housing Table. It recommended that 3200 units of social housing be built by 2010.

In June, Vancouver City Council made implementation of the recommendations subject to "funding constraints." In other words, the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC) and the three levels of government provided themselves with an excuse for breaking their Olympic promises.

Bursting coffers at home

There are no funding constraints. The suggested 3,200 units of social housing would cost $640 million. The provincial government is running a budgetary surplus this year of $4.1 billion. The federal government had a surplus of $6.4 billion in the first quarter of 2007.

With thousands of people remaining homeless, our municipal, provincial and federal governments are violating human rights treaties and commitments that have been ratified by Canada. In specific, we believe these human rights are being violated:


The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

"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, 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."

This right is also set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR):

"...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..."

Canada is not currently implementing this right. Instead of continuous improvement in living conditions, Canada has seen a continuous decline.

In 2006, after reviewing Canada's "steps to ensure the realization of this right," the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights made a strongly-worded recommendation to Canada:

"The Committee reiterates its recommendation that the federal, provincial and territorial governments address homelessness and inadequate housing as a national emergency by reinstating or increasing, where necessary, social housing programs for those in need, improving and properly enforcing anti-discrimination legislation in the field of housing, increasing shelter allowances and social assistance rates to realistic levels, and providing adequate support services for persons with disabilities."


Canada ratified the above-described covenant (ICESCR) in 1976. Thus did Canada agree that:

"Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work which ensure... Remuneration, which provides all workers, as a minimum, with... A decent living for themselves and their families."

Minimum wage levels set by the federal government and by the government of British Columbia do not provide an above-poverty-level income for full-time workers.

This violation was also noted in 2006. The Committee expressed it dismay that Canada has not addressed the treaty body's principal concerns about Canadian implementation of the ICESCR, including, "insufficiency of minimum wage and social assistance to ensure the realization of the right to an adequate standard of living."

Likewise, Canada agreed in 1976 that: "Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health."

The Human Rights Committee, which oversees the implementation by States parties of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, expressed its concern in 1999 that homelessness in Canada has lead to "serious health problems and even to death."

The Committee recommended that Canada take positive measures to address this serious problem. But those positive measures have not been implemented and conditions have deteriorated since 1999.

'Please help us'

Canada has been rebuked repeatedly by the UN for human rights violations.

Despite all the UN treaties and conventions that it has ratified, Canada has not moved forward in a concerted and positive way to ensure that residents actually enjoy the substance of their human rights.

We note that in the pledge made at the time of the elections to the new Human Rights Council, Canada, then an eager candidate said that it "commits to actively pursue the implementation of human rights domestically."

This is not what we witness. Instead, homelessness and poverty continue to plague the poorest people of Vancouver, despite British Columbia having one of the most prosperous economies in Canada, and despite Canada being one of the richest countries in the world.

We ask for your assistance in addressing this pressing human rights problem. Please help us.

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