Access to justice
Q&A with Lindsay Parcells on tackling homelessness
The CBA’s Municipal law section launches a legal guide for municipal governments.
An estimated 35,000 Canadians experience homelessness on any given night, according to a 2016 research report. And at least 235,000 Canadians experience some form of homelessness each year and. Though municipalities are the level of government that most often interact with people without adequate housing, they usually have insufficient resources and expertise to address the range of issues involved adequately. The CBA's Municipal Law Section therefore launched a legal guide to help combat homelessness. CBA National caught up with Vancouver lawyer Lindsay Parcells of Lidstone & Company, who was part of the effort, to discuss the legal issues surrounding homelessness.
CBA National: Why did the Municipal Law Section decide to produce this toolkit?
Lindsay Parcells: Well, we represent local governments across the country. We also act for developers and people that have legal dealings with local governments. And homelessness is a big issue for our clients. Municipal governments have a lot of issues that they have to deal with surrounding homelessness — taking care of homeless people; there are policing costs and social costs. So it's a big concern, and it can take up a lot of a municipal government's time and resources to deal with it.
N: What are the legal issues that come up?
LP: Before you deal with the legal issues, you have to deal with the humanitarian issues, and I think everything flows from that. When you have a homeless person, first of all, that person doesn't have a proper place to live. It creates a situation where municipalities have to focus a lot of resources on trying to help those people, or try to do something for them. You can have potential issues with encampments. Victoria's had issues like that. Vancouver's had issues. There are drug- and crime-related issues, and mental health and healthcare issues. And so what we're trying to do is we're trying to provide a toolbox, which looks at the main legal issues with respect to homelessness, and some suggestions on how they can deal with it in their local communities.
N: What, in your view, is the biggest challenge in dealing with homelessness?
LP: I don't know if I can speak for the entire section on this because this was a collaborative effort by several lawyers. But I think one of the big issues is a lack of stable, affordable housing for homeless people. We have a piecemeal system in much of the country where we have shelters, or we have other ad hoc agencies that try and help the homeless. But in many cases, the housing that's provided is very temporary, and it's substandard in terms of what you would expect would be reasonable accommodations for somebody who needs housing. And so what's needed is stable, consistent and decent-quality housing for these people.
N: What is the Section proposing to help address that?
LP: We've taken a Housing First approach as part of our toolbox recommendations. If you provide safe, clean, and reasonable accommodations for somebody, many of the costs and problems associated with homelessness go away as a result of that. If they have medical or mental health issues, those are much more treatable and manageable when they have housing. If they're unemployed, it's much easier to get a job. It's much easier to deal with life issues if they've got housing and then can move on and progress in life, rather than just being stuck moving from one temporary habitation to another. And then investment in Housing First programs can save local governments a lot of money and a lot of resources.
N: What are some of the other challenges for municipal governments?
LP: In most cases, I think local governments are doing the best job they can with the resources they have. But they often lack the awareness of what they can do to help homeless people. And they have to balance the rights of homeless people with those of other citizens who are perhaps concerned with issues relating to homelessness. And so what we've tried to do is provide recommendations to local governments on how to address problems like encampments and camping in parks and those kinds of things, while also recognizing the rights and freedoms that homeless people have.
This interview was edited and condensed for publication.