Homelessness and the International Response to Coronavirus

Leilani Farha

Interview with Leilani Farha, Former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Global Right to Housing

Leilani Farha wrapped up a six-year tenure as the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the International Right to Housing at the end of May 2020. By that time, Farha had already left an indelible mark on the world community.

A prolific character in poverty prevention, Farha is an activist change-maker. As one journey ended and her new role as Global Director of “The Shift” began, Leilani somehow found time to reflect on her path.

“Housing is understood globally, as a human right. What that means is that it should be a place where you can live in peace with security and dignity,” she said. She added, “although that’s a pretty simple concept, billions of people around the world do not enjoy that right.”

Delving deeper into her responsibilities, Farha explained that her role with the United Nations included many forms of research.

“I’d travel to different countries, spending weeks investigating. I’d go into people’s homes and neighborhoods, meeting with experts, government officials, lawyers, judges, etc. Then I’d kind of do a reckoning, exploring what’s good and bad, and what can be improved. I would release formal recommendations. More often than not, it was local organizations that would take those recommendations and really run with them.”

This scenario isn’t uncommon in social policy research and development. Often, it ends up being front-line organizations being tasked with tackling the elephant in the room.

To her credit, Leilani offered sympathetic respects to local governments who she viewed as “allies” in affecting change for society’s underserved.

“In the role, I did a lot of community visits. I’ve been up and down California, looking at tent encampments. Some of the worst homelessness in the world is taking place in California, which is the richest state in the U.S.”

Throughout that experience, and wherever it seemed to take her, she highlighted one important takeaway: all issues were still local issues somewhere.

“One thing that’s certain is that poverty finds itself everywhere.”

“I think that local councils have an important role to play in challenging poverty, but they often don’t have resources. Every socio-economic problem is on the doorstep of a city. They’re the ones hearing what people are telling them about their daily realities.”

Her impassioned argument for empathy continued, catapulting into some perplexing questions.

“Why is it that just one month into the COVID-19 pandemic, so many people began struggling to pay rents? It suggests that many people don’t have savings. But is that because everyone’s a spend thrift, going out and spending wildly? Of course not! So, then you have to think ‘what’s going on?’”

“What’s going on is the cost of rent,” Farha continued.

“Rent is skyrocketing,” she noted, simultaneously pointing out how many national programs “are not enlightened enough to know what that local reality is.”

In spite of aforementioned advantages that municipal partnerships can bring, she didn’t speak fondly of the audacious challenges that city governments can cause.

“Cities do all sorts of things that I don’t agree with,” she said, citing examples of municipalities ticketing homeless people for violating stay at home rules at the onset of the pandemic. “Homeless people don’t have a home! And ticketing homeless people? You can’t ticket people who don’t have any money and expect them to pay. It’s obscene!” she proclaimed damningly.

“Cities do many things that I have always felt were questionable. But I’ve always felt for cities. So much is downloaded to them to manage. They often don’t have the capacities to do what’s necessary.”

While on the topic of pandemic-specific policy, Leilani’s comments were cautionary.

“Everything seems to have unwound with the pandemic being the focus. Although there are many measures being put in place to create genuine safety nets for people who struggle as this pandemic unfolds, I’m concerned what happens after the worst of the pandemic is over and disease begins to subside. I think we’ll find that the pandemic will not be over for people living in low incomes and poverty.”

Social Welfare Modernization

“If countries go under and enact austerity measures, it often ends up that those plans are managed on backs of low-income people. That’s when you start seeing welfare entitlements and investments in education decline. We know that investments in health are the least likely to decline, because this pandemic is forcing the hand of government in that respect.”

When asked how she’d respond to western governments’ pandemic response measures, her optimism was muted by the incumbent reality. Once the disaster has been managed, the response to it will end.

“I hear people saying ‘it’s amazing what governments are doing now. Look at how active they are.’ And I think that might be true. But I think that might disappear quickly post-pandemic.”

“I’ve heard politicians saying ‘what we are doing now is not about structural change. What we are doing now is about addressing emergencies.’ They’re very clear that we are not implementing universal basic income. We’re implementing an emergency fund for people who are unemployed, who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. They don’t want to go down that structural path,” which she determined “is a lost opportunity.”

On the topic of basic income and the growing movement to support its implementation, Leilani’s comments were again cautiously optimistic.

“I have mixed feelings,” she said.
“I don’t have any sort of theoretical or ideological problem with it. What I consider though, is that we do have an existing welfare system intact. One that’s completely fraught.”

“What happens when you dismantle the current welfare system and put in a basic income system? What are the advantages when weighed against the disadvantages? And at the end of the day, we might all agree that the welfare system sucks, so let’s get rid of it. And in fact, maybe a new system administered through federal taxes like a basic income would be better.”

Switching gears to another international focus at the centre of her advocacy, Leilani broke down the explosive growth in housing being exploited for financial liquidity.

“The ‘financialization of housing’ is when housing is used as a commodity, rather than something of social value. We’re finding around the world that housing is being used as a way to hide wealth. There’s a lot of dirty money in housing being used to leverage more capital,” she said.

As the primary subject of the acclaimed documentary “Push”, Leilani has been largely credited with propelling this topic to the international stage. The acclaim the film received only speaks further to the mounting disaster.

“I go around the world and investigate the phenomena, from South Korea to Chile, to Canada, and beyond. In the film, I end up starting a global movement called ‘The Shift,’ which is a gathering from all of the world of global stakeholders, all wanting to see housing secured as a human right.”

She remarked that the 2008 global financial crisis “was really a global housing pandemic.” It spurred a systematic financial deconstruction of what homeownership means, pointing to the sales of bad debts to multi-national companies who turn foreclosures into rental properties. She said that “they then rent them back to many who have lost homes. The rents were jacked up, and the model exploded.”

“This same model has been adopted by multinational corporations in cities internationally, allowing for housing to become a significant financial commodity, which can be exploited, often further thrusting people into poverty.”

Returning to the topic of pandemic response, Leilani offered a compassionate plea for significant social reforms.

“It’s unacceptable that we have hundreds of thousands (or millions) of people living in homelessness. Before the pandemic, we boasted about being big wealthy nations, having these robust economies and how we’d all done so well over the last number of years. As G7-G8 countries, we boast about having some of the healthiest economies, while millions of people live in poverty and homelessness.”

“It’s disturbing that governments implement a stay-home policy and [then fail] to eliminate homelessness. If our policies across the board are ‘stay at home’ then you have to ensure everyone has a home in which to stay. That means ending homelessness,” Farha said.

“The only way it doesn’t is if you want to apply ‘stay at home’ policies in a discriminatory fashion. One where the only people that can abide by that prescription have homes adequate enough to combat against the virus. Those who don’t will not get that protection.”

“I don’t want to live in a country where one’s wealth or income status determines their protection from a virus. In the face of this pandemic, a ventilator is no different than a home…they could both save a life.”

Leigh Bursey

Leigh Bursey


Leigh Bursey is a 35 year old resident of Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, Canada. Born in St. John's, Newfoundland, Leigh spent over twenty years in Ontario, where he was a three term former municipal councillor. Leigh is an International Best-Selling Author, an award-winning singer/songwriter and recording artist, actor, painter, and community organizer/policy advocate. Leigh is the co-founder of the Brockville Streetfriends and current lead for the Mount Pearl Streetfriends outreach networks. He is an International Chartered Housing Professional, a shelter worker, and a former provincial Housing Officer. Leigh is a board member for the Canadian Housing Renewal Association and the National Alliance to End Rural and Remote Homelessness, and the LivEx Scholars With Lived Experience through Making The Shift. Leigh is a newlywed and a first-time homeowner. Leigh has lived experience with homelessness.

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