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8. Poverty, mental health and addiction

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People with psychosocial disabilities are more likely to have low incomes than people without psychosocial disabilities, and many people live in chronic poverty. In the OHRC’s mental health consultation, as well as in its housing policy consultation, it heard a great deal about the links between mental health, addictions and societal factors such as poverty, homelessness, lower levels of education, inadequate levels of public assistance and other social supports, and a lack of affordable housing. For example, many people who have psychosocial disabilities receive public assistance. Receiving public assistance may be inherently linked to experiencing a psychosocial disability; people who can only work intermittently due to disability-related factors may seek public assistance, such as Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) benefits, for additional income support.

Poverty has significant impacts on people with psychosocial disabilities, including on their personal dignity, ability to care for their families, their physical and mental health, and their ability to be fully included in their communities. At the most extreme end, poverty and a lack of affordable housing in Canada have created a crisis where people are left homeless. People with mental health issues and addictions experience high rates of homelessness.[81] Legal decision makers have recognized that people who are homeless are among the most vulnerable in society and often have mental health issues or addictions,[82] and have considered evidence that shows the impact of homelessness on physical and mental health.[83]

There are concerns that in Ontario, economic inequalities are increasing, leaving people from different Code-protected communities more vulnerable to discrimination and exclusion.[84] Because of factors associated with poverty and low income, people with psychosocial disabilities may be more likely to experience barriers to accessing housing, employment and services than people without psychosocial disabilities.

People receive only narrow protection under the Code for low socio-economic status. The Code protects people from discrimination and harassment in housing if they receive some form of public assistance, such as benefits from the Ontario Disability Support Program, Ontario Works, Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security, Employment Insurance and the Ontario Student Assistance Program. As well, if people experience disadvantage because they are homeless or have low incomes, and this is linked to having a mental health issue or addiction, this could engage the protection of the Code.[85]

People with psychosocial disabilities may find themselves “marked” as having both low income and a disability if they receive ODSP benefits. In rental housing, they may face intrusive questions about their source of income or their disability, or stereotyping about being an unreliable tenant, because they receive social assistance and have a mental health issue or addiction.

Example: A human rights tribunal found that a mobile home campsite refused repeatedly to rent to a person who received a disability pension and had psychiatric disabilities. The tribunal found that the campsite owner perceived incorrectly that the tenant was entirely dependent on his mother, despite reliable evidence to the contrary, and perceived he was not capable of paying his rent or addressing maintenance issues. The respondent was also concerned about the tenant’s membership in Alcoholics Anonymous. Overall, the tribunal found that both the tenant’s disability and his source of income were “inextricably linked” and both formed the reason why the campsite owner did not approve his rental application.[86]

Programs, policies and practices that negatively affect people based on low income will often disadvantage people with psychosocial disabilities.[87] Governments and organizations must make sure they remove barriers that result in people associated with Code grounds being denied equal access to services, housing or employment.

Not taking into account a person’s actual circumstances related to receiving public assistance and his or her ability to meet the organization’s rules or conditions has been found to be discriminatory.[88] When assessing the impact of seemingly neutral rules on people with psychosocial disabilities who have low incomes, organizations should take into account the real impact that these have on a person’s experience. Where these rules or standards have an adverse impact, the duty to accommodate may apply.[89]

Example: A service provider has an initial assessment process that takes place only by telephone. It recognizes that this has negative impact on people with low incomes, including people with psychosocial disabilities, because many people from this group do not own a telephone, and have difficulty accessing one. The organization changes the process to allow for in-person assessments as well. 

Example: An organization that oversees provincial elections works closely with a community mental health organization to ensure that people with mental health disabilities who are homeless can vote. People in this situation face barriers when voting because they may not have the required proof of identity and residence. The elections organization registers eligible mental health organizations to provide people with certificates that can be used at the poll as proof of identity and residence, enabling them to vote without additional identity documents.[90]

Showing cases of discrimination where neutral rules or policies negatively affect people based on low socio-economic status and disability may be supported by a systemic analysis. This may involve:

  • showing evidence that people from the Code-protected group tend to be over-represented in the affected low-income population
  • examining the impact of policies, practices, decision-making processes and organizational culture on people from this group, and
  • establishing a link between the discriminatory actions being alleged and the disadvantaging impact on particular people from that Code-protected group.[91]

Governments at all levels in Canada must have regard for international treaties, such as the United Nations’ Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. These human rights treaties recognize the interdependent nature of rights between adequate income, housing, education, work and equality. The CRPD recognizes, in particular, that people with disabilities tend to live in poverty. Article 28 outlines the right to an adequate standard of living and social protection, including food, clothing and housing, without discrimination because of disability. This includes people who have mental disabilities.

By ratifying these international treaties, Canada has made commitments to uphold and protect people’s economic and social rights, including ensuring that people with mental health issues or addictions have an adequate standard of living, access to food security, and a right to housing. However, the United Nations has repeatedly expressed significant concern about Canada’s record in implementing social and economic rights[92] and the failure of Canadian courts to provide remedies for violations of social and economic rights. The reluctance of courts and lawmakers to address social and economic issues as rights has real consequences for vulnerable groups, including people with psychosocial disabilities. 

Even though the Code does not offer full protection against discrimination based on poverty, the OHRC and others have been successful in pursuing human rights complaints where low socio-economic status intersects with grounds such as disability, race, ethnic origin, citizenship, age and family status.[93] The main way that the OHRC has done this has been to show that a relationship exists between social and economic marginalization and a Code ground such as disability. Governments, policy-makers and organizations should make sure their programs, policies and practices do not have an adverse impact on people protected by Code grounds.

[81] See Douglas A. Steinhaus, Debra A. Harley & Jackie Rogers, “Homelessness and People with Affective Disorders and Other Mental Illnesses” (2004) 35 J. Applied Rehabilitation Counselling 37.

[82] See Victoria (City) v. Adams, 2009 BCCA 563 (CanLII) at para. 75; Victoria (City) v. Adams, 2008 BCSC 1363 (CanLII); Pivot Legal Society v. Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Assn(No. 6) (2012), CHRR Doc. 12-0023, 2012 BCHRT 23 (CanLII).

[83] Victoria (City) v. Adams, 2009, ibid. at para. 26; Victoria (City) v. Adams, 2008, ibid. at para. 44.

[84] Ontario Common Front, Falling Behind, Ontario’s Backslide into Widening Inequality, Growing Poverty and Cuts to Social Programs. August 29, 2012, available online at: at 6, 19, 25.

[85] For example, see Pivot Legal Society v. Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Assn. (No. 6) supra, note 82.

[86] James obo James v. Silver Campsites and Another (No. 2), 2011 BCHRT 370 (CanLII) at para. 171. See also James obo James v. Silver Campsites and Another (No. 3), 2012 BCHRT 141 (CanLII) which dealt with the remedy for the discrimination. The tribunal made several important statements about the particularly serious impact of a discriminatory loss of housing on a person with a mental health disability (e.g. at para. 41).

[87] Pivot Legal Society v. Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Assn. (No. 6), supra, note 82 at para. 635: “The complainants have established that the proportion of Aboriginal and disabled people in the homeless and drug-addicted population is higher than in the general public. They have established that some of the Ambassadors' actions are targeted to the homeless population and have an adverse effect on that population”; see also Radek v. Henderson Development (Canada) Ltd. (No. 3) (2005), 52 C.H.R.R. D/430, 2005 BCHRT 302, and Petterson, supra, note 52.

[88] In Iness v. Caroline Co-operative Homes Inc., 2006 HRTO 19 (CanLII) the HRTO found that a housing co-operative had discriminated against a single mother receiving public assistance in setting rent levels. The co-op set the rent for employed tenants with low incomes at 30% of their income. For members who received public assistance, rent was set at the maximum shelter allowance component of their social assistance benefits. In simply setting Iness’ rent at the maximum shelter allowance, the co-op failed to take into account her actual circumstances, including her costs for utilities and property insurance. The co-op could have set the rent so that both rent and these other costs could come out of the shelter component of Iness’ social assistance benefits, and still complied with their operating agreement with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

[89] See section 13 on “The duty to accommodate” for more information.

[90] This example describes a collaboration between the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario and Elections Ontario.

[91] See section 10.4 on “Systemic discrimination” for more information.

[92] UN Committees and Special Rapporteurs, such as the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Special Rapporteurs on Housing and Food Security, have identified a range of concerns about Canada’s track record on issues related to socio-economic status since the late 1990s, including the insufficiency of minimum wage, and the inadequacy of social assistance rates to meet people’s basic needs. The UN Human Rights Committee expressed concern about people with psychosocial disabilities in Canada being detained in institutions because of the lack of supportive housing in the community: Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee: Canada, UN ESCOR, 2006, UN Doc. CCPR/C/CAN/CO/5 at para 17. In 2004 and 2006, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) identified high rates of poverty for marginalized people in Canada as a concern, including people with disabilities: Concluding observations of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Canada ESC 1-19 May 2006, UN ESCOR, 36th Sess., UN docs. E/C.12/CAN/CO/4 & E/C.12/CAN/CO/5, available online at:$FILE/G0642783.pdf at para.15.

For more information, see the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties under Articles 16 and 17 of the Covenant (Concluding Observations – Canada), 10 December 1998, E/C.12/1/Add.31; and United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties under Articles 16 and 17 of the Covenant (Concluding Observations – Canada), 19 May 2006, E/C.12/CAN/CO/5.

[93] These cases mostly involve the area of housing. See, for example, Kearney vs. Bramalea Ltd. (No. 2) (1998), 34 C.H.R.R. D/1 (Ont. Bd. Inq.), and Shelter Corp. v. Ontario (Human Rights Comm.) (2001), 39 C.H.R.R. D/111 (Ont. Div. Ct.) in which statistical evidence showed that landlords’ use of rent-to-income ratio rental criteria had a disparate impact on people based on their sex, race, marital status, family status, citizenship, place of origin, age and receipt of public assistance. The Tribunal ruled that use of these criteria as the sole factor in assessing rental applications was discriminatory under the Code. See also Iness v. Caroline Co-operative Homes Inc., supra, note 88; Radek v. Henderson Development (Canada) Ltd., supra, note 87; and Ahmed v. 177061 Canada Ltd (Shelter Canadian Properties Ltd.), 2002 CanLII 46504 (Ont. Bd. Inq.).


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