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Faculty of Environment

No security for the belongings of precariously housed and unhoused individuals, researchers say

November 01, 2023

Report finds need for better measures to help people who are experiencing homelessness retain their belongings.

A new report highlights a need to rethink practices that impact what happens to people’s belongings when they don’t have control over the spaces where they live.

Geography professor Nick Blomley and collaborators Alexandra Flynn from UBC’s Allard School of Law and Marie-Eve Sylvestre from the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law analysed current laws, policies and procedures and outline how they control the belongings of precariously housed and unhoused individuals across Canada.

Aimed at an audience of policy makers, regulators and legal advocates, the report describes the regulatory landscape across four broad spaces — streets, parks, private rentals and non-tenancy accommodations, like shelters and rooming houses. It also highlights the lack of clear and easy means for retrieving seized items.

“If you’re a person who doesn’t have control over your space, there is nowhere you and your belongings can be where you won’t be governed by forms of control or regulation,” Blomley says.

For example, he explains that shelters often have strict rules on when, what and how many belongings can be brought in. Meanwhile, belongings in parks or on sidewalks are often deemed obstructions or garbage, and constantly threatened by theft, seizure or disposal. When items are seized by public or private officials, there are often significant barriers to getting them back — if there is a way at all.

The effects of this are profound, impacting people’s health and survival, as well as their emotional wellbeing and sense of self. “There’s a sense of being devalued…of you and your belongings being treated as less-than—which they are because they’re not being protected,” he says.

The report points out that provincial and municipal legislation both have direct impacts on a person’s tenancy and their rights to their personal belongings.

Residential tenancy legislation offers certain protection to tenants, however gaps remain, especially for people in precarious housing situations where there is a lack of clarity of tenant rights, and inherent power imbalances in what is often the only affordable housing available.

Finding ways for all levels of government response to complement one another may be an important step in addressing an ongoing housing crisis and ensuring tenant and landlord rights are clear, transparent, and equitable, the report suggests.

“The principle and value of human dignity should seek to facilitate the ability of people to retain their belongings wherever possible, especially those belongings that are critical to their survival,” the report authors note. “The increasing public awareness of the issue has created an opportunity for enforcement authorities to examine, reform, and abolish current policies and practices that perpetuate housing precarity and put people at further risk of harm.”

“We need to recognize that unhoused people have property rights. Just like all property rights, there need to be remedies, like prevention, compensation, and punitive actions against those who seize property without the right to do so,” says Flynn. “There are short-term solutions: Municipalities can and must give notice, and options for people to safeguard their belongings close by. But the real remedy is housing.”

While there is existing literature on homelessness and the challenges of decampment, there is surprisingly little research about the importance of belongings, Blomley says. However, “stuff” is a consequential aspect of the experience of marginalization:

“To be homeless and outside doesn’t necessarily trigger stigma, or somebody getting upset and calling the police. But if you see someone with their stuff — like a shopping cart — you are identified as homeless,” Blomley observes. “It’s not an offense to be in a public park; it’s an offense to have a tent during the day in a public park. It’s not an offense to be on a sidewalk; it’s an offense to have stuff on the sidewalk.”

By holding up marginalized voices and concerns, Blomley hopes the report and their research at large can counter stigma and “othering” by providing a broader perspective to regulators and the greater public.

“Our stuff matters to all of us, whoever we are. And I think at one level we can all hopefully understand that.”

In tandem with the launch of the report, an online panel discussion will take place on November 2nd.

Read the report at belongingsmatter.ca.