Who Are Homelessness Policies Helping – A Toronto Case Study

Public Health nurse visiting mother and two children outdoors
A public health nurse (on the right) visits a homeless family during the Great Depression. How do homeless services today compare?

In 2019, Canada officially embraced the right to adequate housing, following the language of the United Nations. Homelessness is prima facie (obvious) evidence that the right to adequate housing is missing. Yet homelessness persists. Not only that, encampments are being cleared for reasons of health and safety. Why?

Carol Bacchi, a researcher based at the University of Adelaide has done some work that may be helpful on this question. She has studied equity law1. Bacchi identified that law reform is affected by how an issue is understood. She also noted that some actors have a bigger influence than others in determining how issues are framed: policy responses focus on individuals and fail to address systems that underpin the problem. As part of her work, she developed a set of questions to help others delve into the thinking that shapes equity policies.

Two public health nurses, Tasneem Owadally and Quinn Grundy, used Bacchi’s questions to investigate homelessness. They used Toronto as the focus of their study. Owadally and Grundy demonstrate that homelessness responses in Toronto acknowledge individual struggles but does not pay sufficient attention to the ways that policies and programs contribute to the problem2. Working their way through Bacchi’s questions enable Owadally and Grundy to highlight how policies and programs undermine the intent of ending homelessness by giving priority to concerns of businesses and housed residents.

Owadally and Grundy have written an article, which is linked below. Although the authors are primarily concerned about public health nursing practice, Bacchi’s questions will help anyone who is investigating public programming for housing and homelessness.

You can read Owadally and Grundy’s article in Policy Politics and Nursing Practice: From a Criminal to a Human-Rights Issue: Re-Imagining Policy Solutions to Homelessness


  1. Equity law addresses structural inequalities that affect specific groups of people. The legislation that extended the right to vote to women and to Indigenous people and to tenants are examples. An example in the realm of housing would be a law that prevents landlords from arbitrarilty evicting their tenants.
  2. For example, the design of congregate shelters contributes to unsafe conditions for the people who stay there and the people who work there.