In December 2019, Toronto City Council formally adopted a human rights-based approach to housing as part of its 2020-2030 Housing Now plan. This policy achievement came after years – literally, years – of organizing, mobilizing, leading press conferences, leading public consultations, and working across the City of Toronto to develop and implement a rights-based approach to housing. Out of Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam’s office, we were able to drive monumental change forward and finally achieve principles and policy outlined by the United Nations at the City of Toronto.
In the years building up to this vote, I directed large scale advocacy campaigns that galvanized public support and advanced this issue forward in Toronto, including a call for City Council to immediately fund and open 1,000 new shelter spaces in 2018 and to declare homelessness a state of emergency in 2019. These campaigns mobilized thousands of residents, hundreds of community grounds and organizations, and elected officials across the GTA to demonstrate wide-spread support and demand urgent action.
- Directed all communications and managed 3 staff in the delivery of communications tactics, including storytelling strategy, messaging and creative direction; 5 open letters, 20 media releases, graphics and shareables, social media strategy and digital advocacy campaign kit for community partners.
- Spearheaded digital strategy to drive engagement: 20+ eblasts to mailing list of 20,000+ people, 2 city-wide petitions with over 10,000+ signatories; developed call-to-action advocacy campaign materials that empowered the public to advocate at all orders of government, provided materials for organizations to mobilize their own people. See petition with 52,000 signatories.
- Led all media relations activities, including press strategy, organized 10+ press conferences, wrote press releases and speaking notes, liaised with speakers and organizers; served as a spokesperson for the Office of Councillor Wong-Tam. Read open letter from Prominent Toronto Residents call for 1000 shelter beds. Media highlights and press releases below.
- Managed competing priorities in a complex political environment: liaised with the Mayor’s office and other elected officials in socializing and building political support, negotiated terms of policy direction with community advocates, service providers and elected officials, determined scope and strategy based on competing priorities.
Call for City Council to Immediately Open 1,000 New Shelter Spaces
During the winter of 2017, Toronto’s shelter system was in crisis due to years of under-investment. Each night, over 6,000 individuals were sleeping outside or in Toronto’s shelter system, and the number grew rapidly. Front-line workers told City Council of the need for more shelter beds for years. With significant, on-going advocacy efforts by front-line workers, faith leaders, health care workers, service users, we led the charge at City Hall to successfully pass a motion that would allow the funding for an immediate investment into 1,000 shelter beds to be made available in the 2018 Budget. That represents an increase of 25% of the City’s existing shelter capacity.
- Toronto homeless advocates say city’s plans not enough to address shelter crisis, CBC News
- John Tory’s dangerous shelter shell game, NOW Magazine
- Calls for shelter standards intensify as ‘shocking’ conditions highlighted for city council, CBC News
- Toronto faith leaders urge city to call shelter emergency, open 400 beds, CBC News
- As advocates push for more to shelter homeless, council votes to review supports and keep respite centres open longer, Toronto Star
Declaring Toronto’s Homelessness and Housing Crisis a State of Emergency
While the campaign to immediately open 1,000 shelter beds was successful, our work was not done. The housing crisis was getting worse, as were the conditions our city’s most vulnerable were facing. Toronto’s lack of deeply affordable housing, supportive and transitional housing, and mental health services, along with shelter overcapacity continued to result in deadly consequences. As a municipal government, we desperately needed other orders of government to show up and make meaningful contributions to solve this growing crisis.
Working with the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Housing, our office developed policy language to declare Toronto’s housing and homelessness crisis a state of emergency that required a co-ordinated emergency intergovernmental human rights based response. Once a State of Emergency is declared, federal and provincial support is unlocked and Toronto’s own emergency response system is rolled out. Read the press release here.
Building on our success from the previous years, I created a campaign strategy that focused on: setting up systems for digital advocacy and public engagement, building up media profile with high profile speakers, service providers and folks with lived experienced, and hosting town halls and events (digital and in person) that enabled deeper civic literacy on this important issue. I built coalitions with dozen of community groups, service providers and high-profile resident leaders to publish open letters, host media events and led digital petitions. See petition from Progress Toronto and petition by Lead Now.
- Advocates, Toronto councillors call for state of emergency over city’s homeless, Globe and Mail
- Toronto needs to declare homeless and housing ‘state of emergency,’ advocates say, CTV News
- Housing advocates call for Toronto to declare homelessness a ‘state of emergency’, City News
- Mayor John Tory’s response to Toronto’s homelessness crisis has been a disaster, NOW Magazine
Declaring Housing as a Human Right
While the vote failed at Council, the outcry did not subside. The public continued to put pressure on the City to urgently integrate the right to housing in our policy framework. The language around homelessness and housing crisis was integrated into policy framework of Toronto’s HousingTO 2020-2030 plan, which also included our work around declaring housing a human right.
Like other global cities, Toronto is the midst of a housing crisis. Housing conditions for low- and moderate-income households are worsening, with more and more households lacking housing that meets basic conditions of affordability, security of tenure, accessibility and habitability. A while a rights-based approach to housing won’t solve a housing crisis alone, it is an important step in enshrining that human rights come first when it comes to housing policy and decision-making.
In June 2019, our office hosted the first-ever public forum on Housing as a Human Right for our local communities in Toronto Centre. Leading a team of four, I designed, developed and facilitated a two-hour public consultation that included expert panelists to frame the issue of how to integrate housing as a human right into municipal policy and facilitated engaging round-table discussion and report back. Feedback and insight collected were then delivered to the City of Toronto’s Housing Secretariat Office to integrate into their city-wide public consultation report.
In December 2019, City Council approved Housing 2020-2030 plan, which declared housing and homelessness a crisis akin to a crisis emergency and officially embedding policy that enshrines housing as a human right. With the rights-based approach to housing policy also came Toronto’s first-ever Housing Commissioner, which has been funded in the City’s 2020 budget. The Office of the Housing Commissioner will ensure accountability to housing-related human rights complaints and Council’s adherence to this new commitment.
- Toronto councillors and advocates demand improvements to housing plan, Global News
- Implementing a human rights-based approach to housing in the City of Toronto , Maytree Foundation
- Toronto stuck in ‘vicious cycle’ without enough supportive housing, councillor says, CBC News
- Toronto Must Treat Housing As A Human Right To End Rental Crisis: UN Rapporteur, Huffington Post
Increasing the City of Toronto’s shelter capacity by 25% and enshrining housing as a human right will save lives. Through developing vision, strategy, tools and opportunities for residents and leaders to participate, advocate and drive progress forward, we were able to achieve this policy change. It took incredible tenacity, commitment, ingenuity and the ability to adapt in a changing political environment. Someone once described me as “pushing a bolder up a steep hill” and the metaphor is apt. But a strong moral conviction and vision for the future kept us going, together, to achieve something truly monumental.