Since 1876, when the Indian Act first forced First Nations people to live on reserves, the federal government has been responsible for providing First Nations housing. And it has done a bad job.

That’s why First Nations leaders say the next federal government, elected on Monday, must relinquish its bureaucratic grip to help fix the ongoing crisis in First Nations housing.

Nationally, half of First Nations people living on reserve — and one-quarter of First Nations in the country overall — need serious housing repairs. Another third live in overcrowded on-reserve housing, while nationally 20 per cent live in overcrowded homes on and off reserves.

Hamilton’s affordable housing crisis is not new. But if you have been following The Spectator’s housing series, which wraps up Oct. 19, you know that, and you also know it has gone from being serious to critical.

The million dollar question is: what can and needs to be done about it?

To start with, we need to understand that the crisis isn’t just about affordable housing. It’s also about what housing represents. Safe and secure housing is a social determinant of health. Lack of it has direct impact on physical and emotional health and stability. Medical, emotional and social outcomes tend to be better — much better — for vulnerable people when they have a safe roof over their head.

Housing is a human right, and should be approached that way. We should no more ignore affordable housing shortages than we would ignore clean water and decent nutrition. We have a collective responsibility to ensure human dignity is respected, and that includes safe and secure housing.

Last winter, 99 people in need of shelter – 12 of them children – were housed in local motel rooms with emergency funding because Sarnia’s homeless shelters were full.

Now, as frost and single-digit lows start to hit overnight, the only thing that’s changed is that funding to help those people isn’t around anymore, said Myles Vanni, executive director of the Inn of the Good Shepherd.

“If we’re going to prevent and end homelessness in Newmarket and York Region in general, we need the support of the community,” Blue Door Shelters CEO Michael Braithwaite said.

Kevin’s Place is one of three supportive emergency shelters operated by the non-profit organization Blue Door that was founded in 1982, which includes Porter Place for men and Leeder Place for families.

“Kevin’s Place has been around a long time, so in this community, when families break down, when affordability of housing becomes an issue, we’re here to catch those youth, to help them find employment, get healthy, and look for affordable options to get them on a good path in life,” Braithwaite said.

For most, poverty is an uncomfortable reality we’ve come to accept as a part of our society. But our neighbours who have lived with poverty know that it is ever present in their life—the choice between rent and food on the table, the fear of unforeseen expenses you can’t meet, the inability to give your children the same experience as others.

When we talk about poverty, we are really talking about the ‘opportunity gap’—we all have potential; we don’t all have the same opportunity to fulfill it. Tackling poverty is about building hope—a belief in the potential of all Canadians.

Poverty is a driver of the opportunity gap in this country. It can be uncomfortable to talk about. It can seem too complicated to address. But poverty has no place in a resource-rich, compassionate country like Canada. Our failure to eliminate poverty is socially and economically unacceptable.

What does it mean to say we want to end poverty in Canada? More than an act of charity, this is a question of basic rights.

Poverty forces people to make impossible choices about which of their basic needs will be met each day. Beyond just material deprivation, poverty seeds social exclusion that undermines people’s sense of dignity and self-determination. And as a country, Canada has signed several international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic Social, Cultural Rights, that guarantee these rights to all people in Canada. But whether you understand international human rights law or not, a lack of access to food, shelter or clean drinking water in a country as wealthy as Canada is shameful.

Homelessness is expensive, individually and collectively. It takes a $7-billion bite out of the economy annually.

About 30,000 people experience homelessness in Canada on any given night – 235,000 over the course of a year – and about one in 10 are chronically on the streets.

An analysis by the Homes First Society found that chronically homeless people accumulate about $161,000 a year in costs when you consider medical care, interactions with police (up to one in four calls involve homeless people) and the criminal justice system, shelter costs and social supports like disability payments.