Canadians have been flocking to churches in recent years -- homeless and destitute Canadians seeking shelter.
Canada is a rich country. Yet tens of thousands of people live on the street, and millions are without affordable and adequate housing.
Since the 1980s, deep cuts to federal and provincial government spending on affordable housing have exacerbated the affordable housing crisis. With a new government, we have a new opportunity to address the pervasive and pernicious plague of homelessness.
Citizens of all backgrounds and faiths have tried to pick up the slack, through food banks, community suppers, and shelter programs. Yet we all know these acts of charity are not enough, for they do not bring about justice, nor do they restore a person's dignity. Without secure, affordable, and long-term housing, "home" for the people we serve will never be possible. All sectors of society -- including business, government and community -- must work together to reduce poverty at its source, by ensuring that all have access to fairly paid work, decent public services and income support in times of need.
Access to shelter, access to a home, is a human right and a prerequisite to health and well-being.
Many of our church members are involved in non-profit housing organizations, and in on- and off-reserve housing organizations for aboriginal peoples. We are ready to work with governments at all levels to develop affordable housing that is long overdue and desperately needed. Since 1999, federal housing initiatives have flowed new money to some provinces. However, intergovernmental bickering and provincial cutbacks have meant that far too few affordable housing units have been built in most provinces and territories.
Finally, the federal government stepped up to the plate last July in a significant way. Parliament approved a budget that included $1.6-billion over two years for new affordable housing for aboriginal and low-income people, the single largest commitment of new housing dollars in more than 10 years. Yet, for almost eight months, this money has sat unallocated: We are in danger of losing it.
Unless Prime Minister Stephen Harper follows through with the allocation of these funds, they may revert back into the budget surplus and, ultimately, be applied toward debt repayment -- something that will help the economy only marginally, and will not directly help homeless people at all.
During the campaign, Mr. Harper made a striking commitment. He said he would "replace benefits for a privileged few with government for all." He said he would endeavour to "put the people's interest ahead of self-interest."
This is a prophetic vision that we all welcome -- and to which we should hold our government accountable. Today, the people's interests -- the most vulnerable people's interests -- are at stake.
The calling is clear. We must all work together to help those of our neighbours who are without house and home. But we must also work to eradicate homelessness and housing deficits in the first place.
Churches, community groups and aboriginal organizations, along with many provincial and municipal governments, have developed affordable housing plans that are ready to be rolled out and have a concrete impact on the lives of those facing homelessness.
It is in the power of our federal government to kick-start these plans immediately, by putting people before politics, and by honouring the 2005 financial commitment to affordable housing.
During the election, Mr. Harper ended some of his speeches with the words "God bless Canada." Indeed, the prophet Isaiah says that God blesses you when you "share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house" (Isaiah 58:7). We urge the Prime Minister to spend tax dollars now in a way that will bring the homeless poor into their own house, and allow them the dignity of sharing their bread with others.
The Most Reverend Andrew
S. Hutchison is archbishop and primate of the Anglican Church