Putting Prevention on the Map in the UNECE Region: The TCE as an International Platform for Prevention

In June of 2021, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, A Way Home Canada, and our Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab received a designation from the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) to be held by York University as a Geneva UN Charter Centre of Excellence. The existing eight Centers of Excellence report directly to the UNECE’s Committee on Urban Development, Housing and Land Management (CUDHLM), at the annual Committee sessions, where Member States discuss emerging issues and hear from a range of experts on topics related to sustainable housing, urban development and cities. 

In October, we joined this year’s 4-day session in the Republic of San Marino with a heavy focus on the emerging impacts of the worsening climate crisis, Russia’s war in Ukraine, and the pressures of sky-high inflation and the energy crisis. In the midst of dire and unpredictable circumstances, academics, policymakers and experts from many walks of life in the UNECE region shared their knowledge, solutions, and most importantly, actionable hopes and plans for the future. In this post, I provide the background for this aspect of our work to prevent youth homelessness and share about our plans for the coming years.

About UNECE and CUDHLM

The United Nations (UN) as a whole serves and receives its mandate from its Member States across the globe. One of the principal components of the UN, the Economic and Social Council, supports the capacity of Member States to respond to emergent economic and social development issues, with a specific focus on sustainable development as outlined in its 2030 Agenda and accompanying 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UN has little authority to enforce the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, and instead focuses on creating opportunities to gather and exchange knowledge across Member States for the advancement of the SDGs. 

Providing more targeted support are five Regional Commissions that divide Member States into groups of nations that collaborate more closely. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) is one Regional Commission, which despite the name includes Canada, the United States and other non-European Union countries among its members. The UNECE itself is made up of several committees focused on various aspects of sustainable economic and social development, including the Committee on Urban Development, Housing and Land Management (CUDHLM). CUDHLM is an elected body of government representatives from the UNECE’s Member States, with a specific focus on identifying projects and activities for promoting sustainable housing. 

Geneva UN Charter Centres of Excellence

The UNECE and the CUDHLM, in an effort to address a key issue of sustainable and inclusive housing in the region, worked with Member States to develop the Geneva UN Charter on Sustainable Housing. The Charter is grounded in the principles of: (1) Environmental protection; (2) Economic effectiveness; (3) Social inclusion and participation, and; (4) Cultural adequacy. The goal of the Charter is to direct Member States to promote these principles, minimize the impacts of housing on the environment, and encourage sustainable economic development which promotes access to adequate, healthy, barrier free, and safe housing. 

To advance the Charter in the UNECE Region, the CUDHLM set about establishing at least 10 Geneva UN Charter Centres of Excellence (CoEs) in various Member States, each with a different focus on the issues related to sustainable housing. In 2021, York University received designation for our collective body of work on youth homelessness as the “Toronto Centre of Excellence on Youth Homelessness Prevention”. After the first full year with this designation, members of our team attended the Committee Session in San Marino to share about our efforts to date and our goals for collaboration with the UNECE. Additionally, MtS Scientific Director Dr. Stephen Gaetz, MtS Partnership and Implementation Director Melanie Redman and myself were invited to provide comments and presentations throughout the Committee Session and Side Events. 

In a side event on the newly-developed San Marino Declaration on sustainable architecture, design, housing and cities, I spoke to the importance of the principles of affordability and accessibility to address the housing needs of those who are multiply marginalized in our communities, including youth experiencing homelessness. Stephen and Melanie gave a presentation on the housing needs of youth and women, and the connection between housing and broader goals of whole-person well-being. Stephen also provided remarks about the impact of rising inflation on those on low-incomes in the Region, raising a call for a focus on homelessness prevention to avoid catastrophic increases in the people who find themselves without adequate housing. 

Much focus of the Committee Session and side events were on sustainable architecture and design, yet our presence as representatives from the Toronto Centre of Excellence on Youth Homelessness Prevention at York University was critical. The need to become more sustainable is inherently caught up with complex questions about equity and access. For example, if Member States pursue the design and development of smart, sustainable cities and housing, are the needs and interests of those who are already underserved and socially excluded going to be addressed? How can the pursuit of long-term sustainability be mutually reinforcing with the goal of preventing and addressing homelessness? These and other difficult questions need to be asked along the way to temper and inform strategies that will put people AND the planet at the centre. Environmental justice is a matter of social justice, and vice versa.

The very tangible and urgent crises of climate and conflict in the UNECE Region have driven immediate, collaborative and imaginative action. Plans to rebuild and create more dynamic cities for the future in Ukraine and elsewhere were shared throughout the week. Reflecting on this display of international resourcefulness and solidarity, it leads me to wonder what it would look like to dig deep to fully reimagine our response to housing precarity and homelessness in Canada and elsewhere in the UNECE Region? 

Putting Prevention on the Map in the UNECE Region

In our reporting to the Committee, we outlined the groundwork that has been under way in the last year to take stock of the relationships, connections and projects already underway in our networks in Canada and internationally. We shared our recognition of the need to bring homelessness and prevention into focus in policy discussions in the region over the coming years, starting with the development of a guideline that relays our current understanding of the changes needed to respond to homelessness in a substantive way. Our connection to the UNECE also provides an opportunity to connect with countries and organizations we were previously unaware of through mapping efforts to identify the current state of homelessness prevention responses and planning. From there, our final goal is to workshop with Member States around the desired future state of preventing and responding to homelessness across the various systems which have a role to play (e.g., housing, health, employment, child and family services, etc.).

It is exciting to see the growing curiosity in the UNECE region around homelessness and prevention. As we gear up for mobilizing the knowledge from our funded projects and our collective body of work makes important advancements in policy and practice here in Canada, we can see opportunities for a larger global community of learning and collaboration to make the changes we know are so vital for preventing and ending youth homelessness. In future posts I will delve deeper into the connections we see between our body of work, the Sustainable Development Goals, and the Geneva UN Charter on Sustainable Housing, and how we are working to leverage these and other international frameworks to have a positive impact here in Canada.