What a ‘Right to Housing’ Means for Homelessness: The Case of Veterans

In this bi-weekly blog series, Abe Oudshoorn explores recent research on homelessness, and what it means for the provision of services to prevent or end homelessness. Follow the whole series!

Social systems are strongly influenced by underlying philosophies. These philosophies can be more implicit (such as a belief that individuals are responsible for changing their lives in order to deserve services) or explicit (such as a Housing First philosophy that includes no pre-conditions on housing). National, cross-sectoral networks can play a significant role in transforming systems by profiling particular philosophies and ensuring that they are understood and adopted by policy makers, service providers, and the general public.

A recent and promising philosophical approach within the housing and homelessness sectors is the idea of a right to housing. This is grounded in references within the United Nations of a right to safe and secure shelter. The Executive Director of Canada Without PovertyLeilani Farha, has been playing a significant role in explaining the value of taking a rights-based approach as a means to prevent and end homelessness. This perspective, if it can move from aspiration to legislation, has diverse policy implications from preventing evictions, to requiring adequate housing supports, to influencing the affordability of housing.

Researchers and service providers have begun to explore the implications of a rights-based approach to the individuals who they support. Sandra Lowe and Phillip Dybicz of Valdosta State University in Georgia sought to understand the most effective philosophical and political foundations for solving veteran homelessness. By comparing approaches over time as well as across nations, they were able to unpack the implications of 3 types of approaches: ‘just desserts’; ‘needs’; and ‘rights’.

The authors highlight the current successes of American policy which has shifted from a needs-based orientation to a rights-based orientation for housing veterans. Through the ‘Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness’, veterans are provided a guarantee to accessing a minimum standard of housing and this is funded through governments. They contrast this with previous approaches where veterans were provided some basic resources upon exiting service and those who experienced crisis were expected to reach out to charitable organizations which provided housing support as they were able. They also contrast this with approaches in Australia, the UK, and Italy that are still primarily needs-based.

The authors conclude that evidence points to the value of a rights-based approach to housing, supported by a liberalist political philosophy that means a minimum standard is set for human welfare. In this case, the minimum standard is a government responsibility for being housed. They also give a nod towards the potential of a socialist political philosophy that goes beyond a minimum standard, to providing support congruent with need.

This analysis proves valuable insight for more than just understanding the best approaches to addressing veteran homelessness. Rather, it speaks to a human rights approach as promising for solving all homelessness. If rights are truly afforded to all people, then this promising practice applied to veterans should be applied equally to all citizens.

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