A HomeComing Legacy

Everyone deserves the right to a home; to be part of a community and to live in a welcoming place. Since 2002, the HomeComing Coalition has been championing the rights of people experiencing homelessness, to ensure city planning practices are non-discriminatory and to help non-profit agencies create new homes without compromising the dignity of the people they serve. 

Joy Connelly and Paul Dowling have been with HomeComing since its inception.  Both have extensive backgrounds in social services and social policy. After 19 years, the HomeComing Coalition has come to an end, but the instrumental work done by the group will now be continued by the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness in the form of a Human Rights Working Group. 

We interviewed Joy and Paul about HomeComing and what they see as the group's legacy.

Why did you start HomeComing?
For many years supportive housing providers endured ugly public meetings in which neighbours voiced their fears about the people who would live in planned new developments in very negative ways. Based on their fears about people who appeared different, the neighbours sought to exclude these people from “their” communities.
 
In 2002, the founders of HomeComing, Peggy Birnberg of Houselink Community Homes and Brigitte Witkowski of Mainstay Housing, decided they were not going to take it anymore. They decided to name NIMBY community resistance as discrimination, as a violation of the human right to housing without discrimination based on disability.
 
They reached out to other supporters, who shared their commitment to ensuring that everyone can live in the neighbourhood of their choice without discrimination, and HomeComing Community Choice Coalition was born.
 
What backgrounds/expertise did you bring when you started the coalition? 
The people who have been the backbone of HomeComing over the years have an appreciation of the crucial role that adequate and supportive housing can play in helping people to overcome disabilities and other barriers to stability. They include people with lived experience of homelessness and poverty, providers of supportive housing, people that understand municipal decision-making processes, human rights experts and those with community development and facilitation skills.
 
What kind of barriers did you face when you first started the coalition? How were they overcome?
Municipal decision-makers and supportive housing providers are strong believers in community engagement and inclusive decision making.  They welcome the voices of community members in helping to shape the community in which they live. Yet, when community voices are raised to exclude other people, it becomes necessary to define limits for the discussion.
 
HomeComing has responded to exclusionary community engagement by calling for a human rights lens to be applied, defining the limits for acceptable discourse. City staff has been encouraged to begin community engagement processes by describing what is open for discussion and what is not.
 
HomeComing has also sought ways to ensure that the community voices that are heard include those in need of housing and those who support them, as well as the local neighbours.
 
What are some of the milestones that have been achieved by HomeComing?
One of the biggest breakthroughs came in 2009, when the Ontario Human Rights Commission recognized Not-In-My-Backyard discrimination as a human rights issue. HomeComing had participated in the public consultations leading to the OHRC’s Human Rights and Housing Policy, and we saw our ideas entrenched in that policy. But the exciting thing is that it wasn’t just us. People we had never met were calling for the same reforms we were.  We knew we were on to something big. 
 
The next year, when the City of Toronto released its first Affordable Housing Action Plan 2010-2020 called Housing Opportunities Toronto, it included a Toronto Housing Charter designed to guide City Council and staff. The Housing Charter includes the policy statement: “All residents should be able to live in their neighbourhood of choice without discrimination.” While these words were drawn directly from HomeComing’s deputation to the Affordable Housing Committee; they represented a broad movement in support of a rights-based approach to housing.
 
Name something you personally achieved through the coalition that you are most proud of? For Joy, it was writing HomeComing’s first publication, Yes In My Backyard, and bringing the human rights insights of HomeComing’s founders to a broader audience. 
 
For Paul, it was bringing the human rights message to City Council committees frequently enough that they began to be echoed by City Councillors at City Council and in community meetings.
 
What do you feel is still the biggest issue facing those who experience discrimination around housing? 
Public policy or the lack of public policy, that increasingly excludes low-income people from large chunks of the city. That’s why two of HomeComing’s priorities have been inclusionary zoning — so that low-income people aren’t pushed out of the downtown — and the legalization of rooming houses that would allow low-income people to live without fear in Scarborough, North York, East York and Etobicoke. 
 
Related to this is the failure of the City to adopt a “whole of government approach”, allowing the Planning Department, for example, to see the City’s affordable housing crisis as the work of another department.
 
What would you like to see change around human rights and housing? 
That everyone — politicians, public officials and the public — sees housing through a human rights lens. We know what that looks like when it comes to access to clean water. We need a shared understanding of what that looks like in housing.  
 
What are your hopes for those who continue the work you started with HomeComing? 
Achieve things we never imagined!