Guest editor: Freek Spinnewijn, FEANTSA Director
The Third Overview of Housing Exclusion in Europe 2018, which uses EU data to analyse the situation of housing exclusion across the continent, was published today. It reveals that over 24 million households in Europe are overburdened by housing costs, nearly 37 million households live in overcrowded conditions and nearly 34 million live in damp conditions. It is the only report of its kind and is co-produced by FEANTSA and the Abbé Pierre Foundation.
The past year has resolutely confirmed that another Europe exists: a Europe not merely ignored but also misunderstood, not just despised but also forgotten – a Europe of the homeless. Children now make up the largest group of people in emergency shelters. Women, young adults, people with a migration background and the working poor are also increasingly numerous among the homeless population.
It has been a year since the publication of the Second Overview of Housing Exclusion in Europe 2017 and the systematic change we have been calling for has not materialised. Housing exclusion is still a fast-growing problem, leading to increasingly severe saturation of support systems, increased pressure on emergency services and ultimately, homelessness.
Between 2010 and 2016, the cost of housing for poor households (i.e. those with an average income lower than 60% of the national median) increased in three quarters of EU countries. This increase reached its highest levels in the United Kingdom (45%), Portugal (40%) and Bulgaria (54%). On average in the UK, poor households spend 47.4% of their disposable income on housing (spending more than 40% of one’s income on housing is known as housing cost overburden and is generally regarded as the benchmark above which general welfare and standard of living is threatened).
Shockingly, half of poor 18 to 24-year olds in the UK are forced to spend more than 40% of their income on housing – an increase of 32% since 2012. 14.4% of poor households were living in overcrowded conditions in 2016 – below the EU average of 29.8% but higher than countries such as Ireland, Belgium and Spain and 14.2% had financial difficulties in maintaining an adequate temperature in their home in 2016.
With this data in mind, the past few months have seen vague, incompetent announcements from senior government officials across the EU, sometimes announcing figures far below the reality of homelessness, sometimes justifying – in bad faith – the mediocre results of state action by claiming that some people refuse to be housed, or that they even profit from the system by pretending to be homeless to jump the social housing queue. Rooted in a lack of rigorous quantitative and qualitative monitoring of housing exclusion, this profound ignorance regarding the situation homeless people find themselves in does unfortunately not stop at clumsy political clichés. It creates inappropriate and counter-productive policies, contradicting the very essence of the fundamental right to housing.
The confusion over the causes of housing exclusion and the needs of the people who suffer from it leads to confusion over the solutions to be implemented in responding to this social emergency, e.g. the terms ‘accommodation’ and ‘housing’ are often used without distinction by policy makers. Taking this distinction into account is however essential to understand the paradigm shift that a growing number of associations and institutions across Europe are making. Accommodation refers to supposedly temporary shelter, which in reality, due to a lack of housing solutions, perpetuates precarious living situations and does not offer protection of the right to housing, privacy and inclusion. Long-term housing is a prerequisite for well-being, recovery and social integration. It is a means – and not an end – to the protection of all social rights and personal development of an individual.
This distinction nourishes the ongoing change to homeless services: the staircase model, which still dominates in the vast majority of Member States can be likened to a meritocracy, deferring individuals’ right to housing as they stay indefinitely in shelters, and confiscating the right to shelter from those who do not meet the prerequisites of community life laid down by the services. In Europe, consensus has been building for several years on a model that is the reverse of the staircase model: Housing First. This means putting housing back in its rightful place, namely a fundamental right guaranteed by international and European treaties.
Although this change has taken root in local and voluntary bodies, a systemic transformation – driven by real political will to reverse homelessness, and finally implement the international obligations of Member States regarding the right to housing – is nonetheless still missing. EU institutions also have a key role to play in facilitating and supporting this transition.
This report, in addition to being a repeated call for local, national and European authorities to act, is also a basis for action, recommending strategies to be adopted and pitfalls to be avoided for the implementation of integrated strategies to reduce and eradicate homelessness.
As a European-level organisation, we are calling on the EU institutions to work with Member States, regions, municipalities and stakeholders on the ground to:
- Set a goal of eradicating homelessness in Europe by 2030
Eradicating homelessness is not a fantasy, but requires a strategy that is adapted locally. An incentive at European level with a hard and ambitious deadline, in line with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Programme, would enable Member States to proceed more quickly along this pathway.
- Support homeless people across all relevant sectors
The responses to homelessness should be integrated into the development and implementation of certain EU sectoral policies, such as policies on youth, gender equality, migration, health, disability, mobility, cohesion and urban development, as well as integration of Roma populations.
- Monitor progress in homelessness and housing exclusion at Member State level
The European Union has never systematically monitored homelessness in Member States. Homeless people are rendered completely invisible within EU social statistics. A robust mechanism must be put in place to fully grasp and monitor the extent of homelessness. In addition, policies must be established to address these issues in partnership with the relevant institutions, including Eurostat.
- Defend the rights of homeless people
Homelessness is a clear violation of human rights, which despite everything is chronic and significantly worsening in Europe. EU institutions should use the international and European standards and legal instruments to initiate a human rights-based approach to homelessness.
- Invest EU funds into eradicating homelessness
Despite the existence of good practices, the funds have had a limited impact on the issues of housing exclusion and very rarely do they reach the most vulnerable people.
It is through the mobilisation of a strong legal basis, political will and strategic planning that the objective of ending homelessness and successfully fighting housing exclusion will stop being a fantasy and become an imperative to protect human dignity and proof of the European social project’s credibility.