Out on the Streets: Homelessness in Canada and France

The ‘Public Policy and Governance Review Abroad’, or PPGR Abroad, is a new initiative for 2014. Undertaken in collaborative with exchange students from the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto, it will featured policy insights and analyses direct from Berlin and Paris.

Margaret Campbell

It doesn’t matter where you are in Paris in December; when you look up, you will almost certainly see twinkling Christmas lights strung up along the street. When you take the time to look down, though, Paris looks like a very different city. You can hardly walk a block without seeing at least one person sitting on the sidewalk, many with a child, dog, or both. The subway stations are no different, equally full of people looking for a safe place to sleep as they are full of advertisements for Christmas. It is not uncommon for someone will step onto your metro car and recite a speech about the hard times they have encountered. To visiting tourists or expats, the visibility of the homelessness problem in the French city can be jarring.

Indeed, this jarring feeling is not unfounded, as statistics show that the homeless problem in France has worsened significantly in recent years. According to National Institute of Statistics and Economics (INSEE), some 141,500 people were homeless in France in 2013, including 30,000 children (although the housing charity Abbe Pierre Foundation estimates the number to be closer to 274,000).

The lower of these two numbers represents a 50 per cent increase in homelessness since 2001. A report by the charity “Les Morts de la Rue” (The Dead in the Streets) found that at least 453 homeless people — or more than one person per day — died on the streets of France in 2013, many of them unidentifiable.

Although a June 2008 report by the French government highlighted a housing shortage as a primary concern, subsequent independent research has found that there are roughly 2.4 million homes sitting empty in France. It would appear that the affordability of rental units is the real crux of the issue in cities such as Paris, where the average one bedroom apartment outside of the city centre runs for 838.75€ per month ($1,178.28 CAN) and an estimated seven per cent of apartments are believed to be empty. And despite the high number of housing units sitting empty around the country, the French parliament recently passed legislation setting a target to construct 500,000 new residential units per year.

Local municipal authorities do not appear to be fairing much better. France’s second-largest city, Marseille, recently faced criticism from human rights groups after deciding to issue homeless individuals medical ID cards featuring a yellow triangle. The cards, which are to be worn visibly to help health care workers respond more efficiently to crises, drew comparisons to the Nazi-era Star of David and have been criticized for breaching medical confidentiality. The city halted the program just days after public backlash began, although many stood by the initiative. Deputy Mayor Xavier Mery dismissed these criticisms, claiming to be “appalled by the absurd controversy surrounding this help card distributed by the SAMU (social medical emergency services).”

While the face of homelessness in Canada may be far less visible to the average citizen, the country faces many of the same issues linked to homelessness as France. The 2014 State of Homelessness in Canada Report Card, released just last month, found that on any given night 35,000 Canadians are without a home. The Report also noted that the cost of homelessness on the Canadian economy is over $7 billion annually. The problem is most pronounced in Toronto where, like Paris, affordability has become a major issue. Roughly 90,000 households are on the wait list for social housing.

Both France and Canada have national programs designed to tackle homelessness. In Canada, the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS) provides funding and support to 61 designated communities, supporting a evidence-based approach to countering the issue. The HPS applies a “Housing First” principle which focuses on moving chronically and episodically homeless individuals from the streets or shelters directly into permanent housing.

In 2008, the federal government funded a five year pilot program called At Home/Chez Soi, to provide evidence about what service and systems best help people experiencing serious mental health and homelessness. The program was widely considered a success, and “Housing First” continues to be used at various levels of government (including provincial and municipal plans to end homelessness). Inspired by the Canadian model, France instituted a similar program in four major cities in 2010.

While these programs have achieved meaningful results, including providing about 1,000 homeless individuals with mental health issues with housing in Canada, success has only been achieved in targeted metropolitan cities, and efforts will need to be scaled for a broader application. Authorities in smaller towns, where homelessness can be equally problematic, need to implement similar projects on a local scale. In the European context, an EU-wide policy tackling homelessness will undoubtedly be necessary. While the EU has developed policies addressing social inclusion, migration, health, and human rights, it does not have a policy specifically addressing homelessness. A broad-based, coordinated approach specifically addressing homelessness and promoting “housing first” and other innovative strategies could be a step in the right direction.

One advantage France has over Canada in tackling homelessness is that it does have a National Strategy for Homeless and Poorly Housed People, while Canada remains the only G8 country without a comprehensive national strategy. For housing activists, Canada’s lack of legislation means that its homelessness policies are both incomplete and ineffective. Until Canada developed a national homelessness strategy, many Canadians will continue to go without access to safe and affordable housing.

Margaret Campbell is in her second year at the School of Public Policy and Governance and is spending her fall semester studying at the Paris School of International Affairs. Her policy interests include education, gender and family policy, and criminal justice reform. Having just finished a summer co-op placement in education labour relations within the Ontario Public Service, Margaret is interested in gaining a better understanding of the policies in France that promote a healthy work-life-family balance. She is also looking forward to eating macarons while wandering her new neighbourhood of Montmartre.

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