Homelessness in the European Union: not a necessary evil!

Helping hand
6 June 2024
Homelessness in the European Union: not a necessary evil!

This contribution by PES Group member Mikko Aaltonen,  member of Tampere city councillor (Finland) and CoR rapporteur on Eradicating homelessness in the European Union,  is part of our #SocialEurope campaign, which showcases how progressive cities and regions are championing social progress, both through their inspiring vision and concrete action. 

In recent years, the numbers of homeless people have been on the rise. This is true in most EU Member States, with few exceptions.

According to FEANTSA, the leading European NGO working on homelessness, there are at least 895 000 homeless people in Europe. This is of course an estimation and we could expect the real figures to be higher. Since there are divergent definitions used in measuring homelessness across EU Member States and diverse data sources, this means that not all the people without a home have been properly identified as homeless. 

Homelessness is the most severe form of social exclusion and a human rights violation. To add insult to injury, homelessness also exposes people to other threats such as violence, ill health and all forms of exploitation, while being a key exclusion factor from access to the labour market and a number of public services. Beyond the incalculable human damages suffered by homeless people, this phenomenon comes at a high price for our societies as it undermines social cohesion and for our welfare states as shelters are very costly.

Local and regional authorities are the first called upon to deal with homelessness. For their policies to be effective, they have first of all to focus on prevention through early identification of people at risk of becoming homeless. If this cannot be averted, then measures should strive to minimise the time spent on the streets and as a next step, the time spent in emergency accommodation.

One has to be constantly reminded that homelessness is neither a force of nature nor an inevitable fact of life in our societies. Positive examples have shown that it can be reduced in an effective way. This might not be easy but it is possible.

For the last decades, Finland has been the only EU Member State where numbers in homelessness have been declining steadily. This is due to determined work on this major societal challenge. In the 80’s, there were around 18 000 homeless people in Finland and now there are less than 4 000. There are many factors behind this, but the most important one is the shared view that homelessness is not acceptable and that people have to be helped to have a home. This view has been widely shared by both the general public and the decision-makers. This non-fatalistic attitude towards homelessness has garnered support from the public administration, translated into the substantial work required to reduce homelessness. 

However, what has ultimately determined the success of all actions undertaken in Finland is a profound change of mindset, leaping forward from just managing homelessness to properly ending it. Such a change has come about with the systematic implementation of the "Housing First" model. Previously, homelessness was managed through the provision of shelters to the homeless, in the firm belief that they should first resolve their own problems (physical and/or mental health issues, including addictions, unemployment, etc.) before getting a home. Obviously, this is a vicious circle and the formula rarely works. The "Housing First" model reverses the thinking so that homeless people get a home first and, once they have a roof over their head, they are given the necessary support to address their other problems with the help of social and healthcare professionals. This has proven to be a winning solution to help the homeless.


Behind this success lies the close cooperation between the national government, local and regional authorities and NGOs. All these levels of government and relevant stakeholders are needed for this scheme to succeed. In addition, circumstances in Finland have been favorable when it comes to the provision of houses. For many decades, there has been a strong publicly led and funded production of affordable housing, coupled with the provision of housing benefits to ensure that everyone can afford their rent. These complementary measures have guaranteed that homelessness of those in employment has been virtually non-existent. 

However, there is no room or complacency because past success does not automatically mean future success. The intention of Finland's present government to reduce both the funding of affordable housing and the housing benefits sets alarm bells ringing because it will almost certainly have a negative impact on homelessness.

It must be born in mind that transferring the implementation of best practices from one country to another does not guarantee the same results because its success depends on dissimilar variants such as the structure of the society, existing legislation and various local conditions. However, some key principles still apply across regions and Member States. In the case of homelessness, the core principle is the need for a paradigm shift towards eradicating homelessness (rather than simply coping with it), put into practice through the "Housing First" model, which has already proven its worth all around the world as a tool to end homelessness permanently.

After all, homelessness is not the choice of the homeless. It is the choice of a given society to tolerate it or even turn a blind eye to it. We can also choose otherwise if we want to.


© Photo credits of the header: Rémi Walle / unsplash