Jim Gurnett

Jim Gurnett

June 15, 2015

A simple service honouring those who died due to homelessness set a sombre tone for an Edmonton conference on the right to housing.

On Friday, June 5, family, friends and members of the public gathered at an inner-city park to honour the lives of those who have died in the past year as the result of homelessness and substandard housing.

Over the years, nearly 500 people have died in Edmonton because of the lack of proper housing.

However, Michael Shapcott, one of Canada's leading housing policy advocates, told the conference that homelessness is not inevitable.

"We could end homelessness and we could do it if we stop this notion of thinking it's so big and complex, and we start to realize there are things we could do," Shapcott told about 100 people at the conference put on by the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness.

Edmonton, however, will not resolve homelessness or housing issues on its own, he said in his talk. What is most needed is a change in federal government policy.

The homelessness and affordable housing crisis came about in Canada largely because of choices made at the federal level, he said.

Those include cuts to subsidized housing and income support programs, Shapcott said.

"If homelessness is a man-made disaster," he said, quoting Canadian scientist and activist Ursula Franklin, "we can un-make this disaster."

Over the past 25 years, Canada's population has increased by almost 30 per cent but annual national investment in housing has been cut by 46 per cent.

Federal spending on low-income housing has been sliced in half, he said, dropping to $60 per person from $114 per person in the same period.

By 2017, the number of federally-subsidized homes is projected to drop to 492,500 homes from 626,300 homes in 2007, he said – a 22-per-cent reduction.

"Population up, investment down," said Shapcott. "So is it any surprise that we have mass homelessness in urban areas and rural areas?"

Michael Shapcott

Michael Shapcott

A number of good things are being done in Edmonton, and the city is a good example for other communities to follow, said Shapcott. But when the federal government is not engaged in the issue, things start to fall apart.


The Edmonton Archdiocese has taken an active role in the campaign to end homelessness, including its support of the city's 10-year plan to end homelessness.

Other initiatives taken on by the archdiocese include the provision of emergency food and health care for the homeless, the No Room in the Inn project which raises funds for affordable housing and home renovation projects, and Catholic Social Services' Welcome Home volunteer program.

Bob McKeon, archdiocesan social justice coordinator, said because homelessness exists all over the city and is not just confined to the inner city, it is important for people to speak up in their own neighbourhoods for social housing.

"Housing is really needed for people to take control of their lives," he said. "If you're going to hold a job, if you're going to raise a family, housing is a starting point.

"As Christians, we could think of Matthew 25. When did I see you hungry, thirsty? We could add homelessness to the list," said McKeon.


Jim Gurnett, a member of the Right to Housing conference planning committee, said he has worked with Shapcott on housing issues for many years.

"We always talk about homelessness as if it were something we could solve on our own and he brings a powerful message that says 'No, the real issue is housing,'" Gurnett said.

"Until we start building housing for low income people, we will never see the end of homelessness."