Realizing the Rights of Children and Youth

How do the rights of children and youth and housing rights intersect? What are the implications for young people and families at-risk of or experiencing homelessness? To date, these questions have not been satisfactorily addressed in conversations about Canadian human rights.

In this blog, we will discuss the urgent need to thoughtfully and wholistically consider young people in broader discussions about rights, especially regarding their rights to adequate housing. In particular, we highlight an alternative report on children’s rights and youth homelessness that was developed under the umbrella of the Toronto Centre of Excellence (TCE) on Youth Homelessness Prevention at York University, which is a partnership of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, A Way Home Canada, and their Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab. The TCE is a part of a network of Geneva UN Charter Centres of Excellence established by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe to support the implementation of the Charter on Sustainable Housing and Sustainable Development Goals. 

Canada is at a pivotal moment for protecting the rights of children, youth and families. The federal legislation of a right to housing in 2019 has driven important conversations about what such a right ought to do for people who are currently left out of the housing system, including people experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

In addition to the right to housing, in May 2022, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child completed its combined 5th and 6th periodic report on Canada. The review and reporting process examines UN Member States’ compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, inviting comments, questions, and recommendations from government actors, as well as non-governmental organizations and national human rights institutions. As part of the process, the Committee provides a list of issues for Canada to respond to, and that response is open for review by the public and particularly organizations who can provide further insight, alternative information and questions to support the Committee in their final round of questioning and recommendations.

The process creates unique opportunities for advocacy and critically engaging with persistent issues which threaten or violate children’s rights. The alternative report we recently submitted highlights the ongoing concerns and opportunities regarding the fulfillment of the rights of children and youth who are at risk of, are currently, or have previously experienced homelessness. We go so far as to suggest that a national youth homelessness strategy, developed in collaboration with federal, provincial and territorial governments, would be an important step in driving forward a rights-based agenda to respond to the unique circumstances and needs of some of Canada’s most marginalized young people.

While positive steps have been taken in recent years with the establishment of the National Housing Strategy, consideration and action addressing the specific needs of young people is still largely missing. Young people are often treated as merely a subcategory or footnote in our interventions to address housing and homelessness. Their welfare is assumed to be protected through broader policies and programs aimed at adults. However, the growing body of research on the unique causes, conditions and interventions to address youth homelessness demonstrates that a youth-oriented response is essential.

Without a dedicated response to young people, their housing and support needs go unmet and under-resourced, risking entry into long-term adult homelessness and housing precarity. We do not have sound data on the impacts of the National Housing Strategy on young people, despite the immense financial challenges they face with the rising cost of living. It is for these reasons we call upon federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments to work with young people and their families and natural supports to develop an intergovernmental policy response to youth homelessness. As a part of this policy, we must factor in the uniqueness of what a youth response could look like given the presence of large and dedicated youth systems (Child Welfare, Youth Justice, Schools and Health supports).

Taking a rights-based approach that ensures equity and justice and promotes human flourishing is more than setting a minimum standard for basic material needs. Rather, it calls upon all of us to consider our interconnectedness and responsibilities to care for/with one another and to challenge systems that neglect their duty of care or actively cause harm. A rights-based framing can and should push our thinking about the communities we want to live in and the relationships and practices that are required to make those communities a reality.

While opportunities such as the UN’s review process bring important attention to the human rights violations, the work of realizing the wholistic rights and well-being of children and youth cannot happen in isolation. It requires ongoing conversation, and the active participation of children and youth in creating the futures they desire for themselves, their families and natural supports, and their communities.

The national movement for preventing and ending youth homelessness works alongside people with lived/living experience of youth homelessness, and the advocacy and service organizations that are working with young people for change at the interpersonal, organizational, policy, systems and structural levels. As the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child reaches the end of this reporting cycle in Canada, the real work of upholding and advancing children’s rights in Canada is underway.

For more information, read our full report available here.