Public Health Association of BC Public Health Association of BC

#ReThink Housing: Making the connection between affordable housing and health in BC

Capture rethink1

#ReThink Poverty with the PRC

This month the Poverty Reduction Coalition (PRC) of BC launched a #ReThink Poverty Campaign, which runs from March through September of 2016.  Over the course of the coming months, the campaign will address the seven pillars of the comprehensive, provincial poverty reduction plan proposed by the PRC. As a member of the PRC, PHABC will be supporting this campaign with a series of blogs addressing issues related to each of the pillars through a public health lens. The first pillar of this campaign is #ReThink Housing and presents PHABC with an opportunity to examine the effect of homelessness and inadequate housing on health and highlight recommended actions.

Housing as a Human Right

Access to adequate housing is a social justice issue and, as Sir Michael Marmot noted in 2008, ‘[s]ocial injustice is killing people on a grand scale’. Housing is also a human rights issue. Over 40 years ago Canada signed on to the UN Covenant that identifies adequate housing as a human right. This includes access to a secure place for belongings, sleeping with adequate warmth and safety, protection from the elements and access to hygienic toilet and washing facilities. There should also be access to adequate nutritional food and medical, mental health and addictions services.

Homelessness in BC and Canada

Housing statistics provide a window onto the context both in BC and nationally:

  • Homelessness: 235,000 homeless in Canada every year; 33,000 every night; 15,500 homeless in BC; 2,770 homeless in Metro Vancouver;
  • Lack of affordable housing: 3.3 million (approx.) have to spend 30% or more of their income on housing (and therefore have limited food, clothing and transportation);
  • Low quality housing: 1 million dwellings are in need of major repairs and 0.75 million households are overcrowded;
  • Statistics for First Nations’ communities highlight pronounced disparities in access to safe and affordable housing options.

For more information and data on homelessness in Canada please read The State of Homeless in Canada 2014 Report.

Inequitable access to adequate housing is closely related to the persistence of high levels of poverty in Canada and BC: 10 % of the population living below the poverty line in BC. As rents increase more people are forced to cut back on the other life essentials for themselves – and often their children (food, clothing, transportation) – and ultimately many become homeless. Many others are forced to live in precarious situations temporary accommodation or emergency shelters from week to week, and month to month.

Housing and our health

Homelessness and housing insecurity have a profound effect on health and the causal links between homelessness, poor health and early death are numerous. A 2014 Vancouver study entitled, ‘Dying on the Streets’ showed that the median age of death for a homeless person in BC is about 45 years, about half the life expectancy of the average BC citizen. Homeless people are twice as likely to die of accidents, suicide or homicide (which are potentially preventable). For the many people and families that live in low quality housing in need of major repairs and with inadequate heating, in overcrowded conditions, or tenuous rental situations there are added problems related to respiratory disease, infestations (rats, cockroaches, bed bugs), and effects of poor nutrition (obesity and malnutrition). In addition the effects of stress can lead to mental health and substance use issues.

Studies have shown that the public costs arising from homelessness, which are related to police, courts, shelters, meal programs, and healthcare costs including ambulances, emergency room visits and hospital stays, medications and diagnostic services vastly outweigh the costs of providing adequate, supportive housing (see the MHCC ‘At Home/Chez Soi 2014 National Report and ‘The Mayor Who Ended Homelessness’ examples).

Looking ahead: Recommendations for action

There are compelling reasons concerning human rights and health effects and a strong business case for taking action. Despite ratifying the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1966, Canada remains the only G8 country that does not have a national housing strategy. In light of this, PHABC recommends consideration for the following measures:

  1. The federal government develop (in consultation with provinces, territories and First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities) a national housing and homelessness plan that will coordinate the provision of more adequate housing across the country.
  2. Additional resources for increasing social housing promised in the recent federal budget are brought on stream as soon as possible and are allocated according to a coordinated plan that includes municipalities (http://www.policynote.ca/what-the-new-federal-budget-means-for-bc/).
  3. A national poverty reduction plan is developed and implemented with goals, targets and clear accountability. As BC is now the only province that does not have a poverty eradication plan, we urge the province of BC to develop such a plan with clear goals, targets and accountability. Welfare payments should be sufficient to cover access to adequate housing as well as adequate food, clothing and transportation.
  4. Special attention should be paid to coordinating the provision of more adequate housing for First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities.
  5. Special attention should also to be given to providing affordable and social housing for persons with psycho-social and intellectual disabilities as well as community based services.
  6. Regulate rental arrangements so that forced eviction does not lead to homelessness.

Visit http://bcpovertyreduction.ca/rethinkhousing/ to learn more about what you can do to support BC to #ReThink Housing.