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An outreach volunteer offers help to the homeless on a -20C night in Calgary on Dec. 14, 2021.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Canada’s first federal housing advocate says there is no indication that Ottawa’s 10-year housing strategy is working and that the government’s approach needs a complete overhaul.

Marie-Josée Houle was appointed by the Privy Council in February with a mandate to drive change on systemic housing issues and advance the right to housing for Canadians.

A main focus of her role – which is non-partisan and falls under the Canadian Human Rights Commission – is to monitor the rollout of the country’s national housing strategy, which, when it was announced in 2017, was touted as “the largest and most ambitious federal housing program in Canadian history.”

The plan pledged more than $70-billion over ten years, and among its goals is to cut chronic homelessness in half.

But five years and billions of dollars in, Ms. Houle says there is little evidence that it’s working.

“The strategy is failing,” she said in an interview. “We have all of this taxpayer money – record money – and it’s not going to do what it’s supposed to do.”

Homelessness has reached crisis levels in major cities across the country. Rents continue to surge and social-assistance rates remain below the poverty line. Shelters are chronically full and social-housing waiting lists are years long.

Caroyln Whitzman: Governments across Canada need common, income-based definition of ‘affordable housing’

Ms. Houle argues that the housing strategy is hampered by a lack of data and that jurisdictional politics have failed Indigenous people, who experience disproportionate rates of homelessness.

“How acceptable is it, in a country such as Canada, that people are dying because they’re unsheltered or they’re inadequately housed?” Ms. Houle said. “These are systemic failures, not individual failures. This is policy driven.”

Her concerns were echoed in a recent report by the federal Auditor-General, who found that Ottawa is unable to say whether homelessness has increased or decreased as a result of its efforts so far. Auditor-General Karen Hogan wrote that the plan isn’t living up to its promises as homelessness increases and rents have become even more unaffordable.

The Auditor-General also said there was a lack of accountability and criticized the federal government for failing to integrate its homelessness program with the larger affordable-housing plan.

The national housing strategy is being led by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., which has so far spent around $4.5-billion and committed another $9-billion. A separate homelessness-specific strategy, called Reaching Home, is being led by Infrastructure Canada, which has so far spent around $1.36-billion.

Brittany Hendrych, a spokesperson for Housing Minister Ahmed Hussen’s office, said in an e-mailed statement that the federal government is committed to a human-rights-based approach to housing. She said Reaching Home has prevented 62,000 people from becoming homeless, and placed nearly 32,000 people experiencing homelessness into housing from 2019-2021.

“While we recognize the strategy’s successes thus far, we also know that there is much more work to be done, and we thank the advocate for her work,” Ms. Hendrych wrote.

Ms. Houle said it is impossible to measure progress without adequate data. Most of the numbers available are outdated single-day snapshots of shelter usage, or aspirational construction goals versus actual numbers of people who’ve been housed.

In addition to cutting chronic homelessness in half, the national housing strategy’s stated goals are to remove 530,000 families from housing need and build up to 160,000 new affordable homes. But Ms. Houle said that number would barely make a dent in the current need.

“We’re losing housing that is affordable faster than we can build it,” she said, noting that as much as 30 per cent of purpose-built rentals in Canada are controlled by financial firms including Real Estate Investment Trusts.

“We can’t count on their charity.”

She said Canada needs a standard definition of what makes housing affordable, which she said should be tied to income, not market rates.

Ms. Houle said one of her priorities is Indigenous housing and the disproportionate number of Indigenous people who are unsheltered.

In Toronto, for example, according to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, Indigenous people constitute 15 per cent of those experiencing homelessness, even though they make up only 0.5 per cent of the total population.

“What we’ve heard time and time again is that Indigenous folks do migrate a lot – but the minute they’re off reserve or off their community, then the federal government is absolved of all responsibility,” Ms. Houle said. “Jurisdiction is a great way for governments to go ‘oh, that’s terrible, but that’s not us.’ ”

Editor’s note: (Nov. 28, 2022): An earlier version of this article included incorrect information given earlier by the federal housing advocate of the percentage of purpose-built rentals in Canada controlled by Real Estate Investment Trusts.

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