“Homelessness is a form of discrimination and social exclusion,” said Leilani Farha.

On September 28, 2016 the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness hosted, via webinar, “Youth Rights! Right Now!” The webinar, moderated by Michele Biss, focused on grounding strategies to end youth homelessness in international human rights law. Many of the strategies addressed come directly from Youth Rights! Right Now! Ending Youth Homelessness: A Human Rights Guide, which is aimed at bringing human rights to the forefront of decision making, with a goal of identifying the systemic causes of homelessness. The guide was developed by Canada Without Poverty, in partnership with A Way Home Canada, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, and FEANTSA. The webinar panelists included Leilani Farha, the Executive Director of Canada Without Poverty and United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, and Naomi Nichols, an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at McGill University and Principal Investigator for a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) project titled, Schools, Safety, and the Urban Neighbourhood.

The rights of homeless youth can be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and a number of other international human rights treaties. For example, article 11.1 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights recognizes, “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living…including…housing, and the continuous improvement of living conditions.” Further, the Convention of the Rights of the Child, one of the most widely ratified human rights treaties, enumerates the right to housing for anyone below the age of eighteen. By using international human rights treaties, such as these, the panelists hoped to work to end youth homelessness.

Ms. Farha started the discussion by enumerating the causes of youth homelessness. She argued that institutional intersectionality often plays a role in pushing youth into homelessness. While institutional mechanisms do exist to protect youth, once these protections end, youth are driven into homelessness. For example, youth aging out of the child welfare system or being released from criminal institutions are more likely to end up on the streets. Furthermore, where families are living by a thread, she explained, there is a lure for young people to take to the streets either to help their families or to escape abuse and violence.

However, Ms. Farha said that youth homelessness is not just about a lack of adequate housing. While the focus is on housing rights, homelessness revolves around a number of human rights issues such as health care and the right to life. Ms. Farha claimed that a human rights approach to youth homelessness embraces the idea that all young people have a fundamental, legal right to be free of homelessness and to have access to adequate housing. It was her hope that by addressing homelessness through a human rights lens, government bodies will be forced to report on compliance with international human rights laws. Using a human rights framework, Ms. Farha ensured, will help stakeholders involved in this work better equip themselves to tackle homelessness.

Similarly, panelist Naomi Nichols emphasized the need to work directly with homeless youth in order to address the root causes of homelessness and the protections needed. She explained that a human rights approach to housing rights would allow homeless youth to voice their concerns and find effective and accessible remedies when violations occur. Ms. Nichols also spoke about the relations between community housing and policing, explaining that young people who live in institutional housing experience more interactions with the police than their counterparts who live in private housing. The current way community housing is organized, she explained, allows for evictions of tenants who simply engage in behavior that becomes construed as “undermining community safety.” Young people, she stressed, have a higher risk for eviction under these types of policies. However, by ensuring that everyone involved in access to housing—from policy makers to service providers to the youth themselves—are provided with human rights training, Ms. Nichols believes training will help institutionalize a rights-based approach, help rights claimants identify how rights apply to them, and open up avenues to access justice as well as ensure accountability.

At the conclusion of the webinar, Ms. Biss highlighted the need for policy makers and government officials to identify and work with those dealing with youth homelessness, particularly LGBTIQ communities and minority communities facing racial disparities. She explained that law and policies within the youth homelessness framework need to specifically site human rights obligations, produce strategies to combat the issue, and receive adequate funding from governments. She hopes that by using a human rights based approach, states can build accountability mechanisms and provide complaint procedures for individuals who face rights violations. While Ms. Biss recognized that some aspects of implementing a human rights approach may take time, she argued that governments have immediate obligations to repeal local laws that criminalize or stigmatize homeless youth. Elimination of youth homelessness, she concluded, is a human rights imperative to be achieved without unreasonable delay.