In August, a coalition of individuals and groups advocating for the poor people of Canada called on the federal government to enshrine housing as a human right. The group claims that roughly 235,000 people experience homelessness in Canada every year while over 1.7 million Canadian households are living in unsafe, unsuitable or unaffordable buildings, although it is not clear where these figures come from. A spokesperson for this group said, “We’ve come together to show the prime minister that there is broad-based support for legislated recognition of the right to housing and to offer a way forward.” It is interesting that any group that wants the government to do anything can always claim broad-based support for their cause. They never offer any evidence of this support.
However, what I really do not understand here is the further statement by this individual calling Canada’s housing and homelessness crisis the result of a failure to protect human rights. I have no issue with trying to address the existence of homelessness, but as an economist it seems to me that trying to solve a problem without understanding the root cause is a methodology that will simply create further problems in the future. Simply declaring that homelessness is caused by the failure to protect human rights is a non-supportable assertion. Ask yourself the following question: if we had declared housing to be a human right, say, 30 years ago, do you really think there would be no homeless people today? Not likely.
So, if the current problem is not caused by the lack of human rights, why do these individuals want this legislation? The answer must be that if the right to housing is enshrined in law, then the government will have to provide housing for all individuals who are declared as homeless. There must be a large variety of reasons why individuals become homeless. I am sure that mental health issues and drug addiction must be high on this list. It is at this point that I see the danger in this legislation, which arises from a failure to understand that human beings are motivated by incentives. This kind of legislation has the potential to increase the number of people who declare themselves to be homeless.
We should heed the lesson of what happens when you just give people housing when they claim they are homeless. In the last several years “tent cities” have become a popular method of drawing attention to the homeless. On the left coast, a tent city in Victoria grew quickly in numbers after it was first established and became a drug-addled, violence-ridden place. The Victoria government gave in and found housing for those in the tent city. The apartment where the homeless were housed quickly became an overcrowded drug-addled, violence-ridden place. It seems to me the answer here is not just to make housing a human right and give it to the homeless. I do not understand why we are afraid to try to understand the root causes of homelessness and deal with the issue properly.
Frank Atkins is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.