Setting a National Standard on Rights-Based, Gender-Sensitive Approaches for Emergency Shelters across Canada

July 2, 2024

How can we ensure emergency shelters across Canada genuinely support the rights and needs of women and gender-diverse people? 

Today, we are excited to launch the Human Rights-Based, Gender-Sensitive National Standards for Emergency Shelters across Canada to provide a roadmap for shelters to adopt policies and practices that align with the right to housing and contribute to better outcomes for women and gender-diverse persons who are unhoused.

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télécharger le rapport français 





In Canada, many women, girls, and gender-diverse people find themselves in unstable or unsafe housing conditions due to policy decisions. These groups often bear a disproportionate burden, frequently leading single-parent households and managing childcare responsibilities, increasing their risk of eviction when they are forced to choose between paying rent and meeting the basic needs of their families.

Those who experience homelessness face even more dire circumstances.

Despite the documented violence and trauma that women and their children face on the streets, each day many are turned away from domestic violence and homelessness shelters due to capacity issues. One in five returns to live with their abuser. About 41% of gender-diverse people report having experiences of discrimination and/or judgment from staff at homeless shelters or drop-ins. These are just a few of the many experiences of homelessness that are unique to women and gender-diverse people.

Meanwhile, emergency shelters, including those that are co-ed, gender-specific, or dedicated to women fleeing violence, are often overwhelmed and under-resourced. Chronic underfunding coupled with a surge in housing needs have exacerbated this issue across the country. Additionally, some shelter policies and practices create barriers that result in people being denied entry, separated from their children, or unable to access crucial support.

These systemic issues raise many important human rights issues, including issues related to the right to adequate housing. Given the ratification of the National Housing Strategy Act (NHSA) in 2019, there is an urgent need to transform emergency service delivery in alignment with the right to housing.

In order to deliver on its commitment to addressing housing need amongst those in greatest need, governments must take seriously the gendered nature of homelessness and the unique experiences of women and gender-diverse people. This recognition is embedded within the National Housing Strategy (NHS) itself, which states that the “types of housing barriers faced by women and girls are unique,” and that “women and girls are disproportionately impacted by housing need.” For example, the NHS highlights that “55% of Canadian households in core housing need are female-led, as are 63% of households living in subsidized housing.”

What changes needed to better align shelter services with these human rights commitments?

Transforming Emergency Shelter Service Delivery

In response, the National Right to Housing Network, in partnership with the Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network (WNHHN) and the Canadian Centre for Housing Rights (CCHR) developed National Human Rights-Based, Gender-Sensitive Shelter Standards through a process which brought together a diverse range of key actors from across the country—including people with lived experiences, service providers, human rights experts, and advocacy groups—to imagine a rights-based, gender-sensitive model for service delivery in emergency shelters. 

These standards are grounded in a comprehensive framework that merges international human rights principles with a gender-sensitive approach. Drawing from international treaties, human rights frameworks, and best practices, the standards aim to set a high bar for emergency shelter operations while remaining sensitive to the unique needs of diverse gender identities and expressions.

By developing a rights-based, gender-sensitive model for emergency service delivery, the “National Human Rights-Based, Gender-Sensitive Standards for Emergency Shelters across Canada” have the potential to:

  1. Increase access to supports and services for marginalized women and gender-diverse people who are being excluded by these systems;
  2. Create alternatives to shelter policies and practices that deepen housing precarity for women and gender-diverse persons; and,
  3. Prevent harm (including intergenerational harm) and rights violations linked to shelter policies and practices related to gender.

The development of these standards has been a deeply collaborative effort, aiming to create a robust framework that addresses the complex unique challenges faced by women and gender-diverse individuals accessing emergency shelters across Canada. This inclusive approach ensures that the standards reflect a comprehensive understanding of the genuine needs and dynamic realities faced by those accessing emergency shelters.


Looking Ahead

These standards will also become a joint submission to the upcoming review panel—a new oversight and human rights-based accountability mechanism under the 2019 National Housing Strategy Act—on the Government of Canada’s failure to prevent and eliminate homelessness amongst women and gender-diverse people, particularly those who are Indigenous.

This review panel process (anticipated in coming months) will give people with lived experience of gender-based homelessness and housing precarity—as well as civil society allies—an opportunity to share their experiences and solutions and hold the Government accountable in a way that was not possible before. By setting these standards and advocating for their implementation, we aim to transform emergency shelters into spaces that uphold the dignity and rights of all residents. 

Read the National Shelter Standards (ENG)

Read the National Shelter Standards (FR)

Additional Resources


National Shelter Standards Overview

Read this high-level overview of Human Rights-Based, Gender-Sensitive National Standards for Emergency Shelters across Canada.

Read the Overview (ENG)

Read the Overview (FR)



Government Relations Advocacy Toolkit

Check out this helpful resources to support shelter providers, advocates and lived experts in advocating for rights-based, gender-sensitive shelter standards with each level of government.

Read the Toolkit


Government Action Guide

This resource is designed to help each level of government better understand what a rights-based and gender-sensitive approach to emergency shelters and Violence Against Women (VAW) shelters can look like. This toolkit provides specific actions that each level of government can take to align funding and operating of emergency shelters with their human rights obligations.

Read the Action Guide


How to Build on This Work Report

This report provides an overview of the team’s process, lessons learned, and key actions to replicate.

Read the Report



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