It’s not often you get an invitation to go abroad in the call of duty. Or not for Shelter Scotland anyway. So I was somewhat surprised and delighted, to be invited to take part in a Right to Housing Symposium in Toronto, Canada.

In some ways I shouldn’t have been surprised that we were invited at all. The United Kingdom generally, and Scotland specifically, has some of the most progressive housing and homelessness legislation in the world. In the run up to meeting the 2012 Commitment I’ve probably written that sentence over a hundred times, but hadn’t fully appreciated what that meant until I arrived in Canada.

So last week I jetted off to Toronto armed with slides, stats, leaflets and plenty of room in my case for maple syrup. My three day trip was jammed packed with 4 speaking engagements across the city. From a 3hr seminar at Osgoode law school to students studying the interestingly titled ‘poverty law’– to a national conference on strategies to further the campaign to achieve a right to housing in Canada.

The radically different context was immediately apparent. I spend a lot of my time speaking to a familiar and well-versed group of housing/government professionals. While there are often robust discussions on policy and practice, on the whole there is a fundamental agreement on the ‘big stuff’. By ‘big stuff’ I mean: the importance and need for social housing, the need to preserve the welfare state (even though the Westminster Government didn’t get the memo) and the notion that some people, through no fault of their own, are having a pretty bad time and need support to get through it. I suppose that boils down to a collective sense of social justice that is simply not the norm across the globe and certainly it is struggling to prevail in Canada.

So I needed to unpick some of the things I planned to say. Impossible to convey the significance of our Banish the Bedroom Tax Monster campaign without first explaining the role of social housing in Scotland (24% to Canada’s 4%) or the role of housing benefit in responding to homelessness because the social security structure is just not the same in Canada or across North America. With at least 200,000 Canadians experiencing homelessness each year and 30,000 sleeping rough or in emergency shelters every night, the homelessness challenge is huge.

While there are some similarities: massive health inequalities, inadequate housing supply, a government increasingly to the right of centre… there are also colossal differences. Our opposite numbers in Toronto aren’t fighting for improved housing conditions, tenure length or access to quality housing support, they have a more fundamental challenge of getting the Canadian government and courts to recognise a basic right to housing. It was eye-opening to see Canadian colleagues articulating their challenge in terms of supply of hostel beds, street deaths and a violation of human rights.

I shared a platform with speakers and experts from a range of countries including France, South Africa, India and the USA. Quite a mixed bunch and a fascinating discussion about housing rights (and wrongs) around the world. The former UN Special Rapporteur for adequate housing, Miloon Kothari gave insights from his globe-trotting and work alongside some of the most marginalised peoples across the world and the role of class, race and culture in providing the right housing solutions for different people.

So, much food for thought.

And what was my contribution? Well, explaining the way we work, how we evidence and write policy and how it feeds into campaigning and influencing work. How we work with other stakeholders and where we have had the most, and the least, success.

This was juxtaposed against my fellow speaker at all 4 events – the very excellent Rob Robinson from New York. Formerly homeless, Rob is a radical activist who works with the ‘Take Back the Land’ movement – essentially breaking into private properties that have been repossessed, cleaning them up, repairing them and installing local homeless households in them. This was just one of many examples where people feel so excluded and marginalised by the political process (both in the US and Canada) that instead of seeking to affect change through established legal or political channels, they are compelled to engage in direct action and take to the street.

If anything I was left with a feeling that we work in a far more benign environment. And very thankful for it.

Of course it’s not a bed of roses in the UK just now. No blog is complete these days without a mention of the dreaded welfare reforms….and we are right to be dismayed and concerned about the significant weakening of the welfare state. If the Coalition government continues with this series of cuts/breaks and reforms which reward the rich and penalise and demonise the poor, then perhaps we’ll have to radicalise and take to the streets.

But we’re not there yet. At the moment we can achieve more for homeless households and those struggling with welfare reform from inside the tent than by picketing outside it. I think what is most important is what you change however you go about it.

The phrase ‘justice not charity’ was used a lot while I was in Toronto. Well thank god we’ve got a pretty decent version of both. For now.

Fiona King, Senior Policy Officer, Shelter Scotland