Friday, August 22, 2014

Housing is a human right

What would happen if housing were enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms? One activist’s inside account of the radical new fight to end homelessness

In 1996, fresh out of high school, I co-founded the Calgary chapter of the anti-poverty activist group Food Not Bombs, together with a group of youth active in the local punk music scene. We collected donations of food and served vegetarian meals to the hungry and homeless in front of City Hall, an outdoor soup-kitchen and weekly protest rolled into one.

We couldn’t stand by as the number of people without homes in boomtown Calgary continued to rise; by 1999 estimates put the number of homeless at almost 4,000 people.We sent letters to politicians, held rallies, and spoke to the press. No one should go hungry, we argued—after all, food did grow on trees. And we knew without a shadow of a doubt that housing was a human right.

Canada prides itself as “a consistently strong voice for the protection of human rights,” and has signed onto many international human rights covenants. It was a Canadian, John Peters Humphrey, who was the principal drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Together with the UN General Assembly, Canada adopted the historic document in 1948, which guarantees everyone the right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”

Despite this guarantee, the numbers of homeless people in Calgary has remained largely unchanged; in 2008, the city counted 3,601 people without a home. In 2014, that number sits at 3,533—and many other Canadian cities face the same high, stagnant rates.

Almost 15 years after those first small actions, I was privileged to stand outside a courthouse in downtown Toronto as four individuals and the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation (CERA) filed a historic legal challenge against the Canadian and Ontario governments. The housing and homelessness crisis had only deepened over the years, and these activists intended to hold Canada to its 1948 promise. They wanted the Court to declare homelessness itself a human rights violation and to rule that under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the government had a responsibility to end it.

“Across the county and in Toronto, various activities have been employed to end homelessness, from research on the health effects of homelessness to meetings with politicians and protests,” says Cathy Crowe, a street nurse and voluntary executive director of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. “It’s hard to imagine one thing that hasn’t been tried, and done really well, by groups across the country.” Crowe is one of 12 expert witnesses who provided evidence in support of the legal challenge. “It felt to us way back, that we should go to court.”

The legal system isn’t the only avenue for marginalized people to seek justice. But, after years of organizing to end homelessness with few victories to celebrate, the possibility of a court ruling that would force the government to act was an exciting prospect.

Supporters have since dubbed the CERA-led case the “Right to Housing” challenge. Unlike past legal skirmishes led by anti-poverty activists, which targeted specific laws—such as those that banned panhandling or sleeping in parks—it is a broad, all-encompassing challenge to government policy. A shared experience of living without adequate, affordable housing brought the applicants together. They deeply wanted to help prevent others from facing the same challenges. Together with the non-profit organization CERA, they argued that the federal and provincial government had failed to implement effective strategies to address homelessness and inadequate housing. As a result, the applicants argued, the governments had deprived them, and others, of “life, liberty, and security of person”—a violation of section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

CAVE puts a human face back on Canada's hundreds of missing women

Let’s be friends!The case also relies on the rights to equality found in section 15 of the Charter. Women, people with disabilities, aboriginal people, new immigrants, youth, and people from racialized communities experience inadequate housing and homelessness at greater rates than the general population. The applicants argued that by failing to effectively address the housing crisis, Canada and Ontario were “creating and sustaining conditions of inequality.”

“I lost my husband, my children, my home,” says Janice Arsenault, one of the four applicants involved in the legal case. In 2003, her husband, who owned their Pickering, Ont., house together with his mother, died during a routine operation. Heartsick and homeless, she was forced to relinquish custody of her children to her parents. Arsenault ended up living on the street, and then in a series of poorly maintained apartments where she faced abusive roommates and drug-dealing neighbours. “I’m 45 years old. I don’t want to wait ten years to live in a safe place,” says Arsenault, who has struggled to find a decent apartment that she can afford with the money she receives in provincial disability benefits.

In Canada, 200,000 people experience homelessness each year, and at least 1.3 million have experienced homelessness or extremely insecure housing in the past five years. People without adequate housing suffer from a range of health problems, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, tuberculosis, skin and foot problems, and others. These conditions are a direct result of, or made worse, by their housing experience. They also face increased risk of violence: a 2007 Toronto-based survey found that 35 percent of homeless individuals experienced physical assault and 21 percent of women experienced sexual assault in the previous 12 months.

Without stable housing, life expectancy is significantly reduced. A 25-year-old woman living in shelters, rooming houses or hotels has a 60 percent chance of living to 75. For men, that chance drops to 32 percent. Even those who have a place to call home face serious challenges. Finding a good, affordable apartment is difficult. Forty percent of renters in Canada spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent; over 400,000 tenant households are living in overcrowded conditions; and at least 370,000 rented homes are in need of major repairs. People wait years to access affordable housing: In Ontario there are 158,445 households on the social housing wait list.

The housing crisis in Ontario hasn’t always been this bad. “Canada has always had many people living in poverty,” University of Toronto researchers noted in their 2009 book Finding Home: Policy Options for Addressing Homelessness in Canada. “But it was only in the 1980s that more and more people found themselves not only poor, but unhoused.”

This trend, caused by the erosion of social programs, grew more exaggerated when the Liberals withdrew all permanent federal funding for social housing in the early ’90s. Since then, successive governments have granted ad hoc funding for programs and new social housing, but none have re-established an ongoing program to support social housing. “There’s a sort of collective amnesia among people about the loss of the national housing program in 1993,” says Crowe. “The current reliance on the charitable sector is problematic, and it’s a result of the underfunding of social services.”

But, there are others, like Crowe, who haven’t forgotten. In 2010, supporters of the legal case formed the Right to Housing (R2H) Coalition of Ontario. The R2H Coalition included individuals with lived experience of homelessness, as well as academics, workers, and community activists from over a dozen organizations and agencies. In the long periods between court appearances, we organized workshops and rallies to build awareness of Canada’s housing and human rights obligations. On November 22, 2011, R2H joined with the Occupy movement in Toronto to mark National Housing Day. The mood was sombre— the Occupy encampment had recently been served with an eviction notice by Toronto Police, but spirits lifted as the crowd grew in St. James Park. It was clear to me and many of the young activists sleeping in the park that homelessness was one of the starkest examples of the increasing inequality in our society which had sparked the Occupy movement. This event was one of many organized by anti-poverty activists, social service agencies, and tenant groups over the years of the housing crisis.

This sustained advocacy has not gone unnoticed by politicians, both within and outside the governing parties. In May of 2012, members of all federal parties voted in favour of a non-binding motion that acknowledged that the government has an obligation to “respect, protect and fulfill the right to housing.” A few months prior, in February, the federal NDP had introduced the Act to Secure Adequate, Accessible and Affordable Housing for Canadians to create a national housing strategy to fulfill that obligation. Members of the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois vowed to support the bill when it came time for its second reading vote on February 27, 2013. In the lead-up to the vote, advocates called and wrote to backbencher Conservative MPs from across the country, who were free to vote with their conscience. There was hope that a few MPs, seeing the problems that lack of affordable housing were causing in their ridings, might vote in favour of the bill.

Yet, on the morning of the vote, Conservative MP Tony Clement, president of the treasury board, held a press conference and characterized the private member’s bill as a “dangerous and risky NDP spending scheme.” This statement was intentionally misleading, as private members’ bills cannot allocate funds without government approval. In the end, Clement’s message found its mark, the bill was defeated 153 to 129, with all Conservative MPs voting against it.

Housing advocates have long argued the idea that it is too expensive to end homelessness is a red herring. Take, for instance, a 2008 Government of Alberta study that concluded it would cost twice as much to maintain homelessness as it would to end it by building affordable housing and providing social/health supports to those who needed them.“Moving 11,000 individuals and families out of homelessness will require investments of $3.316 billion,” reads “A Plan for Alberta: Ending Homelessness In 10 Years.” “This is far lower than the cost of simply managing them.”

Outside of Canada, there are examples of countries addressing homelessness and the right to housing. Decades of organizing and public education in Scotland paid off when the government passed a law in 2003 ensuring that anyone who is unintentionally homeless has a right to settled accommodation. Individuals without housing can apply to a regional council which has a legal duty to provide them with permanent housing. If there aren’t any units available at the time, the council must provide them with temporary housing—a bed in a shelter is not enough. France passed a similar piece of legislation in 2007. Section 26 of the South African Bill of Rights declares: “Everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s precisely the kind of legal obligation seen in other countries that the governments of Canada and Ontario oppose. This attitude has made the Right to Housing case a hard fight. In 2012, the governments brought forward a motion to strike the case before it began. Rather than debate the evidence and present their own counter-arguments, they wanted the case to be thrown out without any of the evidence being heard by the Court.

“The use of a motion to strike by the government in an important Charter case like this is deeply troubling,” explains Tracy Heffernan, from the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, one of three lawyers who represented the applicants. “It can serve to quell dissent and prevent the voices of marginalized groups asserting Charter violations from being heard before the courts on a full evidentiary record.”

On May 27, 2013, three years after the case was filed, I sat in a packed courtroom watching Superior Court Justice Thomas R. Lederer preside over the motion. At the end of the three-day hearing, the Justice reserved judgment. He needed time to carefully consider the arguments put forward by both sides.

The judgment arrived four months later, on a Friday afternoon in September. The Ontario Superior Court of Justice agreed with the government. Lederer ruled that it was “plain and obvious” that the case could not succeed, and struck the case. Contrary to Canada’s pledge under the Declaration of Human Rights, it seemed, this decision made it plain that there is no right to housing in Canada. “This will come as a shock to those in Canada and the international community who have been assured that Canada recognizes access to adequate housing as a fundamental human right and that the most marginalized are protected under the Charter,” Leilani Farha of CERA said at the time.

The ruling was a clear setback, but we refused to mourn. The court is one venue to assert the right to housing, the streets another. In November 2013, the R2H Coalition helped organize a week of actions from Victoria to St. John’s in support of social housing funding and a strategy to end homelessness. In Toronto, over a 100 people gathered in the rain at Yonge-Dundas square, and our cries of “housing is a right, we won’t give up the fight” echoed off the buildings around us.

The Right to Housing applicants appealed Lederer’s decision and the Ontario Court of Appeal heard the case at the end of May 2014. In addition to arguments from the applicants and the governments, a panel of three judges considered submissions from eight intervenor groups who supported the case, including Amnesty International, the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund. “The proper role of the Court in this case,” wrote the Charter Committee Coalition in its intervention factum. “[Is] to provide the ‘last line of defense’ for some of the most marginalized and powerless members of Canadian society.”

As of June, there’s no way to know how long we will have to wait for the Court of Appeal decision. A positive Appeal ruling would mean that the case could continue, and Arsenault and the other applicants could finally present evidence that shows the depth of the housing crisis and its impact on human rights. It could be years before we see a final ruling, unless the applicants lose at the Court of Appeal. A negative appeal decision could mean the end of the case; the applicants would pursue a Supreme Court of Canada appeal, but there is no guarantee such an appeal would be allowed, let alone successful.

Regardless of the final outcome of the legal case, Arsenault remains steadfast in her conviction that no one in Canada should be without a safe, affordable place to live. “As a human being, I have a right to adequate housing,” says Arsenault. “It’s not just for myself. I want to fight for everyone.”

Yutaka Dirks lives in Toronto. His writing has been long-listed for the CBC Literary Prize for Creative Non-Fiction and his fiction and non-fiction work has appeared in Briarpatch, Ricepaper Magazine, and Rhubarb Magazine. A long-time social justice activist and community organizer, he contributed essays to Beautiful Trouble: A toolbox for revolution, published by O/R Books in 2012.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

White supremacy is the real culprit in Ferguson. The excuses just prove it

To be black is to be a victim – and then get blamed for it. To focus on the people’s resistance more than police repression devalues black life

Nyle Fort, Wednesday 20 August 2014


Americans shouldn’t have to beg their police not to shoot them. Photograph: Joe Raedle / Getty Images
We’ve had enough of the police brutality, of the colorblind mythologies and post-racial rhetoric, of the sweet-talk, of the calls for non-violence; of mass incarceration and systemic poverty, of trigger happy cops and crying black mothers, of the Eric Garners and Renisha McBrides, the Michael Browns and Tarika Wilsons; of black tears and white terror. Dr Martin Luther King Jr said in 1968: “A riot is the language of the unheard”. Today, nearly 50 years later, black America demands to not only be heard but heeded – by any means necessary.

This week in Ferguson, Missouri, there has been more backlash over the resistance of a few black (and some white) protestors than the violence of white police. Meanwhile, according to organizers on the ground, it has mainly been (white) outsiders inciting violence to promote their own agenda. As the writer Sarah Kendzior tweeted: “White people coming to STL to provoke police violence against black residents and get them blamed”. More than blamed: black people are left to bear the brunt of the political mess white infiltration leaves behind, be it by the National Guard or outside organizers.

As Sean Beale, a 27-year-old local, told the Guardian: “If you don’t live here you don’t worry about the burning and looting. You don’t worry about stores closing, or losing your job, or walking for miles to buy food.”

But to focus more on the people’s resistance than the police repression that created it – even as tensions cooled in the streets on Monday night – is to participate in the dehumanization and devaluing of black life. To ignore the elders rallying for the sake of our babies and young people peacefully protesting on behalf of our future while some (white) visitors instigate disarray is morally reprehensible. Beyond Ferguson, the pattern is clear. Blacks are always to blame, even as we are brutalized by police, ghettoized by neoliberal policies, and disenfranchised by a racist criminal (in)justice system.

But that’s the crux of white supremacist racial logic: the problem with black people is … well, black people – not mass incarceration and the deindustrialization of urban America, not educational inequality and generational poverty, not 400 years of slavery, lynchings, and Jim Crow. To be black in America is to be victimized and then made responsible for our victimization. We built this country. But, apparently, it is we who are lazy and dependent. We are bullied politically, socially and economically. But it is we who are called “thugs”.

“There is never an excuse for violence against police,” President Obama said. Yet there are endless excuses for state violence against black people. For mass incarceration, there’s the “war on drugs”. For poverty and unemployment, there’s “a culture of laziness” and “government dependence”. For the educational gap, there’s the burden of “acting white”. For Eric Garner: “loosies”. And for Michael Brown, there are stolen cigarillos, jaywalking or anything the police can say to shift the narrative from their white supremacist practices to black “ghetto” culture.

It is to say that black lives do not matter, that our babies deserve death and despair, that our communities don’t deserve protection and justice.

Obama needs post-racialism like Bush needed the “war on terror”: to camouflage our contradictions, to exercise global dominance vis-à-vis a (neo)liberal-democratic narrative, to lie to the world. But with the numbers of black bodies unemployed, incarcerated and extrajudicially executed, what are to we to do?

No one person knows.

But we must act collectively and courageously. Alongside the immediate arrest of Darren Wilson, we must demand the demilitarization of law enforcement as well as the decriminalization of the black body. In addition to the withdrawal of the curfew and National Guard, we must demand the withdrawal of apartheid police forces and local governments where a black majority is ruled by a white minority. We cannot depend on the same police force that killed Brown to liberate us. In Ferguson and across the nation we must push for the implementation of community-oriented police models that include prevention, problem-solving, citizen engagement and community partnerships. There needs to be a cop-watch program in every city across America with a high concentration of people of color.

Also, we must recognize that naming Wilson as the killer without naming white supremacy as the culprit fails to address the root of racialized police violence. We must recognize, as Malcolm X did, that police brutality is a human rights issue that will not be solved simply by the passing of legislation. Our rallies must spark revolutionary action. Our marching must evolve into a sustainable movement. We must see that this is bigger than Brown and Wilson, than Ferguson or New York City. This is about the value of black life in 21st-century America.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

11 Things White People Should Stop Saying to Black People Immediately

"More often than not, many white people resort to putting the onus back on the people who are experiencing the pain of racism. This tactic often derails the broader conversation, allowing white people to continue ignoring their own biases, and prevents a frank examination of the larger systems and powers accountable for enshrining the dehumanization of and discrimination against blacks and people of color. That larger system is white supremacy, a version of which has little to do with neo-Nazis or the KKK as most would assume." READ MORE....

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Patriots don’t torture: Why excusing it is an American catastrophe

Here's why I'll never have mercy on torturers; no matter what any of our presidents might say

Falguni A. Sheth
Saturday, Aug 16, 2014 

About a week ago, for the first time ever, the U.S. government, through the comments of its chief executive no less, confirmed that “folks were tortured.” Simultaneously, he observed that there ”was little need for sanctimony”  given the heightened fears of the American public in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the enormous pressure that law enforcement officials were under to prevent future attacks. The president’s official confirmation that “folks” were tortured and not just undergoing “enhanced interrogation techniques” was remarkable. His words were striking not so much because the public learned something new, but because they should have ramifications for those who designed, justified and endorsed torture as part the U.S.’s national security strategy to combat terrorism.

For those who provide the legal cover for torture, including John Yoo and Jay Bybee, there might be some fear that an official U.S. confirmation of torture will have ramifications for them. But they claim not to be afraid of prosecution. Given the soothing, exculpatory tone of the president’s remarks and Attorney General Eric Holder’s lapdoggish compliance, (despite his resolute acknowledgment in 2009 that waterboarding is torture), they have every reason to believe it. Yet, his remarks are notably deceptive on a number of fronts. The president’s remarks suggest that torture was an accidental practice, one deployed under pressure and randomly, rather than in the way that we understand now, as intentional and systematic. In fact, we have had official confirmation of torture since at least 2004, when pictures revealed the abuses of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. We also know that the plan to engage in torture was not the result of passion and mere patriotism. Rather, it was part of a series of policies that were designed to evade the charge of torture. These plans were carried out systematically by the CIA staff under the instruction and endorsement of high-level Bush administration officials (despite their denials). The CIA had the approval, the endorsement and the “legal” architecture of a policy to conduct intentional, deliberate, systematic torture of enemy combatants.

President Obama’s words suggested that the decision to torture was collectively considered and endorsed by Americans: “We” tortured some folks. “We” did some things that were wrong. “We” did some things that were contrary to our values. It’s important “we” look back to recall how afraid (“we”) people were after the Twin Towers fell. The president’s use of the collective “we” fails to acknowledge that a deep divide was exploited between Americans and residents who were Middle Eastern, Muslim, or South Asian (MEMSAs); and all other Americans, in the aftermath of 9/11. While that divide emerged on the occasion of the 19 hijackers on 9/11, it was mercilessly reinforced by President Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and political and non-Muslim religious leaders across this country. Many others, including Deepa Kumar and Arun Kundnani, have developed astute analyses of these politics elsewhere.

As a matter of accuracy and truth-telling, the president’s “we” needs to be qualified: not in terms of fear and patriotism, but in terms of the state-approved racism and xenophobia that disqualified most MEMSAs, many of them men, from the full protection of the law and respect in the aftermath of 9/11. The president’s “we,” in addition to his generic, unqualified reference to “people”: as in “People were afraid”; “People” did not know whether or more attacks were imminent; seduces the public into mistakenly believing that all Americans (Muslims, non-Muslims, all minorities, all progressives) were part of the “we” that called for or endorsed torture.

There is another deception in the president’s remarks: They indicate that fear is an acceptable motivation to discard principles and laws that are supposed to protect people from state-led violence, precisely during those times when passion, fear and vindictiveness seem like acceptable excuses to do otherwise. The Week’s Ryan Cooper, quoting key aspects of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, has called out POTUS for his genial yet amoral “impartial” stance on torture. That is the point of the 1949 Geneva Conventions: There are no exceptions that are acceptable for torture.

Contrary to POTUS’s statement, in the immediate days following 9/11, not all of us were afraid; at least not of the men who were being targeted, hunted down from the jungles of American suburbia, and scapegoated for the crimes of 19 men. Many of us knew that the actions of 19 hijackers who claimed to kill in the name of Islam were not templates for all Muslims. We knew, as we have been reminded yet again this week, that the fears of whites, especially of those in power, are convenient excuses for political and economic exploitation, social manipulation and racism. If anything, the fear that many MEMSAs and other minorities have long had is of local and state police officers, FBI agents, CIA agents, most of them white men (and women) with enormous power and authority to make life miserable for MEMSAs: for political gain and career development; for public assurances of security that would inevitably cost many of “our” acquaintances, friends and family members their freedom, their security, their family connections, their peace of mind, their happiness. Needless to say, many of “us, the “us” that the president is not talking about, knew that Muslims/South Asians/migrants of Middle Eastern descent were innocent. “We” were afraid of the potential ways in which they would wreak havoc on our lives and families. “We” knew that 9/11 would be an opportunity to ratchet up various hostilities and associated programs of state surveillance and police overreach that had been on the back burner for months, years, even decades: from racial profiling to institutionalizing anti-Muslim hunts not just in the U.S. but internationally, in countries where such hostilities have simmered and flared up for centuries.

But POTUS’s admonition for us not to “be too sanctimonious about torture” is absolutely right: There is absolutely no need to feign indignance [sic, for indignation] about torture: not when there are plenty of good reasons to be sincerely furious, profoundly outraged and loudly calling for accountability for not only the architects of torture but those who will exculpate, protect, and sympathize with the architects, the torturers, and those who complied with the instructions to torture other human beings. There are plenty of us who are furious. And we should be, especially when “we” were among the crowd who objected to discussions of the “acceptable conditions” under which torture should take place. In short, unlike the ”great civil libertarian” Alan Dershowitz, there are no conditions under which many of “us” would endorse, sanction or condone torture. Many of us, even before the Internet, knew that torture was an ineffective, inefficient method by which to obtain information.

Let’s be clear. Even without the confirmation of experts on torture (enough hiding behind the euphemism of enhanced interrogation techniques), all of “us” know that torture is a highly public signal to indicate that “some of us” in positions of leadership were endorsing violent and heinous actions as a vindication for those whose trauma manifested in bloodlust and revenge. So when the president tells us to have mercy on the torturers and the torture architects, because “a lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure,” I have to wonder why he’s so willing to give these guys a break in the name of pressure or even patriotism. What does patriotism have to do with hurting people? Since when did vindictiveness in the name of patriotism become an acceptable standard for torture?

For the president to officially admit that men were tortured in the name of national security is one thing. For him to justify those actions, and attempt to induce sympathy or even exculpate those who were in charge of designing and implementing a torture program in the name of all Americans, is reprehensible.

Falguni A. Sheth, a professor of philosophy and political theory at Hampshire College, writes about politics, race, and feminism at