Criminalized women and gender-diverse people face multiple systemic barriers to accessing and retaining safe and affordable housing—before, instead of, and after incarceration.
The Government of Canada officially recognized housing as a human right in 2019. According to international human rights law, the right to housing is understood as the right to a safe and adequate housing in which one can live in security, peace and dignity.
Housing is a key issue in protecting the rights of criminalized women and gender-diverse people as well as an important support for fostering safe transitions back into communities after incarceration.
Women and gender-diverse people face specific challenges accessing and retaining housing. These barriers include lower household incomes, greater childcare responsibilities, and discrimination and harassment from landlords. Racialized women, Indigenous women, women with disabilities, 2SLGBTQIA+ people, sex workers, single mothers, and other marginalized women and gender-diverse people disproportionately experience these barriers.
Incarceration introduces new challenges by significantly disrupting an individual’s housing, finances, and support networks. For example, women and gender-diverse people exiting correctional facilities frequently lack housing references and have poor/no credit history. Release conditions (e.g. Parole) may further limit their housing options. Additionally, discriminatory rental practices and formal policies prohibiting renting to people criminal records remain common in both market and non-market housing.
Just as criminalization makes individuals more vulnerable to housing insecurity, housing insecurity makes people more vulnerable to criminalization. A pan-Canadian survey with women and gender diverse people experiencing homelessness or housing need found that 40% of participants reported an encounter with the criminal justice system. The survey also finds many participants report resorting to criminalized activities to pay for housing and other necessities. Women and gender diverse people who are incarcerated while homeless face an even greater challenge in securing housing upon their release. Barriers to securing housing impact those seeking bail or release, often prolonging their detention.
The feminization and criminalization of poverty, especially for Indigenous and racialized people in Canada, have positioned criminalized women and gender-diverse people among those in greatest housing need. Both housing insecurity and criminalization are known to compound experiences of violence, poverty, mental health and substance use issues, and reproduce intergenerational trauma.
Through the National Housing Strategy Act (2019), the federal government has committed to a rights-based strategy that includes the active participation of rights-holders in identifying systemic issues and appropriate remedies. The progressive realization of the right to housing also commits the government to directing the maximum available resources to those in greatest housing need.
The National Housing Strategy and its associated funding programs currently lack a comprehensive gendered analysis and do not acknowledge criminalization as a significant contributing factor to housing need. Full recognition of the intersecting and systemic barriers to safe and adequate housing faced by criminalized women and gender-diverse people are key to understanding how their right to housing is being violated and what action and resources are needed.
While it is difficult to say exactly what realizing the right to housing will look like for criminalized women and gender-diverse people specifically, we can imagine a few elements:
Safe and stable housing for all is essential to working towards a world without prisons.