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Advocacy in Canada’s Affordable Housing and Homelessness Sectors

Posted April 24th, 2017

By: Nick Falvo

Nick Falvo Ph.D, is Director of Research and Data at the Calgary Homeless Foundation.


On January 24, I gave a presentation to students at the University of Calgary as part of the Certificate in Working with Homeless Populations program. The goal of this presentation was to discuss ways students could advocate to senior orders of government for better public policy that can help end homelessness.

My PowerPoint slides from the presentation can be downloaded here: Falvo_Homelessness Advocacy WHP 3 of 3 20jan2017.

This is the last of a 3-part presentation that I delivered that day. A blog post based on Part 1 can be found here, while a blog post based on Part 2 can be found here.

Here are 10 things to know about advocacy in Canada’s homelessness and affordable housing sectors:

  1. Advocacy can be defined as a collective effort to bring about changes to political priorities, funding levels, legislation, regulations or policies. It’s relevant to people working in the homeless-serving sector because, in addition to delivering services to clients on a day-to-day basis, many workers in that sector also want to see changes to public policy that would help end homelessness.
  1. In the homelessness and affordable housing sectors, there are at least seven approaches to advocacy. They are: grassroots advocacy; direct action; rights-based advocacy; government-to-government advocacy; advocacy within Parliament; professionalized advocacy; and policy-based advocacy. Some people and groups take part in more than one type of advocacy; also, there’s considerable overlap among the different approaches.
  1. People engaged in “grassroots advocacy” have often been directly affected by homelessness. Also, their effort likely has a very small budget. This often involves informal working relationships, as well as a strong volunteer component. Examples of grassroots advocacy in Canada’s homelessness and affordable housing sectors include: Calgary’s Client Action Committee; Vancouver’s Carnegie Community Action Project; Housing Action Now (in Toronto); Montreal’s Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU); and Montreal’s Réseau d’aide aux personnes seules et itinérantes de Montréal (RAPSIM).
  1. People who engage in “direct action” are very willing to be disruptive (i.e. sit-ins, protest, civil disobedience). Little effort is made to charm or cajole the audience (e.g., observers, media, etc.). Direct action often receives a considerable amount of media attention. Examples of groups who engage in direct action include CLAC-Montréal and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.
  1. The underlying argument of “rights-based advocacy” is that individuals should receive a social benefit because it’s their legal right to have it. This often means challenging interpretations of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and invoking “economic, social and cultural rights.”[1] Rights-based advocacy is heavily dominated by people in the legal community. Examples of organizations that take this approach include Canada Without Poverty and the Right to Housing Coalition (organized by the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario). An example of a Calgary-based approach to rights-based advocacy is the Homeless Charter of Rights project.
  1. Government-to-government advocacy, as well as advocacy within a legislature or parliament, has obvious importance. Examples of organizations that engage in the former approach include the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Assembly of First Nations. Examples of advocacy that take place within a legislature or parliament include Question Period, committee work and the legislative process.
  1. “Professionalized advocacy” is often well-resourced and tries to positively reinforce what it sees as ‘good behaviour’ by government. This approach typically involves frequent meetings with elected officials—sometimes elected officials even seek out the group in question for their opinion and for background information. Such groups typically have multiple paid staff and sufficient resources to plan large events (e.g., conferences), hire consultants, commission research and produce web-based resources. Such organizations often provide services to their members (e.g. webinars, trainings). They also place emphasis on positive messaging with government (i.e. praising good behaviour, positive reinforcement). Canadian groups in the homelessness and affordable housing sector that engage in this approach include the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association, Housing Partnership Canada and the National Housing Collaborative.
  1. “Policy-based advocacy” is an approach whereby a specific policy or funding pitch is used to galvanize attention and lobby government. Examples include the Alternative Federal Budget, the One Percent Solution and “ending homelessness.” (As a self-proclaimed policy wonk myself, I like this approach very much.)
  1. In the past decade, there’s been a change in tone in Canadian homelessness advocacy. Beginning in the mid-2000s, many homelessness advocates began making their cases to senior orders of government in Canada in new ways. Advocates started to emphasize what the non-profit sector could do differently, rather than how much more money senior orders of government needed to spend on social welfare programs. Increasingly, advocates also began using economic arguments in favour of action (by emphasizing the economic cost of homelessness to society) rather than a moral argument. This approach was especially popular among those practicing the professionalized approach; it has not been as popular within the direct action movement. I’ve previously blogged about this phenomenon here.
  1. There’s a role for all of these approaches. There’s no inherent reason why all of these approaches can’t co-exist. Not only do they not need to compete; they can actually complement and reinforce each other. I would argue, for example, that direct action approaches ‘create space’ for professionalized approaches. What’s more, some people and groups may choose to practice a variety of approaches.

The author wishes to thank the following individuals for invaluable assistance with this blog post:  Cathy Crowe, Katie-Sue Derejko, Louise Gallagher, Kara Layher, Allan Moscovitch, Emily Paradis, Steve Pomeroy, Kaitlin Schwan and Greg Suttor. Any errors lie with the author.


[1] For a consideration of whether economic, social and cultural rights can be litigated in courts, see this resource.


You can get a PDF version of this blog post here: Advocacy in Canada’s Affordable Housing and Homelessness Sectors

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