Homelessness: putting a roof over everyone’s head

7 December 2021
Homelessness: putting a roof over everyone’s head

Winter is here, not only in the mythical continent of Westeros in Game of Thrones, but in most of our cities and regions. For many, it means that Christmas festivities and family reunions are near. For the 700,000 homeless people across Europe though, it marks the beginning of harsh months of survival in the freezing cold. Some will seek shelter underground, in train or metro stations, or may even find a bed in emergency housing. But many will have no other choice than sleeping rough, out in the open with nothing to protect them from the wind, the snow and extreme temperatures. Some of them will not see the next spring. This is the bitter reality we are witnessing across the EU.

How is this possible in a Europe largely perceived as a safe haven, with some of the world’s strongest economies and most successful welfare states? In a Union founded on the principles of solidarity, human dignity and human rights, how can we be bystanders to homelessness, which is probably the most severe manifestation of social exclusion in Europe?

Homelessness in the EU: a harsh reality

When it comes to tackling homelessness, we must first and foremost ask ourselves what its root causes are. Personal issues such as health problems, disabilities, mental disorders, addictions or domestic violence, combined with precarious work and financial difficulties, are only some of the reasons that often lead people in the streets.

The 2008 economic and financial crisis hit Europe hard and worsened an already worrying situation. The rise in unemployment has been coupled with a sharp increase in rents, gentrification and touristification of housing, and the privatisation of social housing in many European cities, making it more and more difficult for citizens to find a home at affordable prices. Moreover, the migration crisis put additional pressure on EU member states, who have seen a change in the profiles of their homeless populations, with an increasing number of young people and families forced to sleep under bridges.

The COVID-19 lockdowns have further revealed the seriousness of the phenomenon, with a contradictory situation in which residents of entire cities were confined to their homes except for the homeless.

In fact, in the EU, the number of people without a place to call home has increased by 70% in ten years.  This tendency is no longer sustainable. It is high time we acted to reverse the rising curve of homelessness and provide these people with much deserved shelters. It is our duty, as Europeans, and we have the means to do so.

How? By using all the instruments in the EU toolbox to empower cities and regions in effectively dealing with the situation and through an integrated approach that prioritises housing-led solutions and addresses all dimensions of homelessness: from social housing policies to labour market measures, from free job training programmes to medical assistance.

A European framework to combat homelessness

As recent studies have demonstrated, when it comes to tackling homelessness, local and regional authorities are key players, so the success of the responses falls on their shoulders. They are not alone in this fight. Europe needs to play its part, too, and offer policy guidance as well as financial support.

This year’s Social Summit, held in Portugal under the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU led by socialist Prime Minister António Costa, gave an important political impetus to the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights with the adoption of an Action Plan, which has as main target a reduction of at least 15 million in the number of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion. Although no specific target was set about homelessness, in June, the European Commission and the Portuguese Presidency launched the European Platform on Combating Homelessness to bring concrete solutions to the distress of millions of citizens who experience homelessness at some point in their life. This platform, which also involves the Committee of the Regions represented by our member Mikko Aaltonen, Vice-Chair of Tampere City Council in Finland, is a major step forward. It fosters dialogue and allows for better synergy between all levels of government in the EU, from European to local, in their efforts to bring an end to homelessness.

A place-based response with a housing-led approach

Thanks to the work of our Socialist rapporteur Mikko Aaltonen, European cities and regions have taken a strong stance on the matter and brought concrete proposals on the table to tackle an issue they know all too well. The Committee of the Regions’ opinion on Eradicating homelessness, adopted on 2 December, calls for an EU-wide definition of homelessness and urges the Platform to facilitate transnational exchanges and mutual learning, to promote access to EU funding and financing opportunities, and to improve data collection and monitoring of policy progress.

Intervening in the plenary debate about homelessness, organised within the framework of the adoption of Mikko Aaltonen’s opinion, European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights Nicolas Schmit stated clearly that the role of local and regional authorities is essential, while our member Vasco Alves Cordeiro, First Vice-President of the European Committee of the Regions, underlined that affordable and sustainable housing must become a priority of Europe’s recovery plan to make the European Pillar of Social Rights a reality.

The request of the Committee of the Regions is also shared by the European Parliament, whose members have pledged to end homelessness by 2030.

In his opinion, Mikko Aaltonen also calls for cities and regions to be able to make full use of the wide range of EU funds available, from the European Social Fund+ to the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), and from the Recovery and Resilience Facility to the InvestEU programme.

The Ending Homelessness Award, given each year by the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless, is yet another good example of what can be done locally when EU funding is put to good use. We need to build our response upon these good practices.

The opinion insists on the necessity to adopt a housing-led approach, whereby the offer of housing is not conditional on behavioural responses or the attainment of specific targets by the homeless people. At the same time, securing accommodation should be part of a comprehensive approach that ensures the delivery of structural as well as personalised support services to accompany people out of homelessness and effectively address its root causes on an individual basis. Mikko Aaltonen underlines the importance of focusing also on prevention, by introducing specific measures that help those who are most vulnerable and at risk of becoming homeless.

The housing-led approach has already proven to be remarkably effective in bringing down the number of people without a place to live. Mikko Aaltonen knows something about it. His country, Finland, was the first in Europe to address homelessness through the so-called “Housing First” approach, and today, it is the only country in Europe that has successfully managed to reverse the curve of homelessness, almost eradicating the problem.

Every human being should have a roof over their head. This is one of the most basic of human rights and a centrepiece for people's wellbeing. Eradicating homelessness is after all in line with the UN 2030 Agenda on the Sustainable Development Goals. It is worth noting that the issue of homelessness undermines the attainment of several Sustainable Development Goals, namely Goals 1 (No poverty), 2 (No hunger), 3 (Good health and wellbeing), 6 (Clean water and sanitation), 8 (Decent work and economic growth), 10 (Reduced inequalities) and 11 (Sustainable cities and communities).  This shows to what extent homelessness challenges are intertwined with other issues, which calls for cross-cutting policies to effectively address it.

Progressive cities and regions lead the way

Housing-led solutions to address homelessness are closely linked to housing challenges. The call of the #HousingForAll campaign of the PES Group in the European Committee of the Regions aims at bringing the housing crisis to the top of the EU agenda, with concrete proposals to make affordable and sustainable housing a reality. Our Group has also launched a petition having collected almost 300 signatures already and inviting everyone to join in our call, among other priorities, for:

  • a European Deal for Housing with a sound monitoring housing system on European and national levels that includes local and regional authorities;
  • more investments in affordable and sustainable housing to rectify the EUR 600 billion investment gap in the past decade, to build new homes, to reduce the carbon footprint through renovation and to create liveable neighbourhoods together with our citizens;
  • a clear commitment that any public investment in housing shall lead to a fairer housing market, with investment linked to binding conditions such as security of tenure and affordability.

Across Europe, progressive cities and regions have already taken huge steps in that direction. They lead the way in the fight against homelessness and for social housing and access to housing for all, showing the need for truly place-based approaches.

With the “First at home”project, the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands built hundreds of affordable housing. Utrecht has also taken ambitious preventive actions to identify people at risk of homelessness and provide them with adequate support beforehand.

In Germany, the city of Leipzig focuses on preventing evictions through a successful mediation policy to support tenants at risk of being evicted in reaching an understanding with their landlord.

“With an overall re-integration rate of 45.7%”,Vienna’s assistance programme for homeless people is another great example of how an integrated approach to homelessness can successfully address the problem. The Austrian capital provides its homeless people or those at risk of homelessness with a wide range of services tailored to their needs, from social to heath support. At the same time, emergency shelters provide a temporary solution, with the aim of swiftly relocating homeless people in affordable and quality housing.

Lisbon also took similar measures back in 2019. The Portuguese capital created the Lisbon Homeless Planning and Interventions Centre to implement the 2019-2021 municipal homeless plan through a strong cooperation with NGOs and civil society organisations operating in the city.

We must act now!

The COVID-19 crisis has seen European countries taking new steps to protect homeless people. Even though most of these measures focus on short-term solutions, this pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of people living in the streets or in inadequate housing. With the lives of so many at stake, it is a situation of emergency that has to be dealt with through resolute measures. At the same time, firm political commitment is needed for the eradication of homelessness by 2030. To attain this objective, intermediate goals would be a convincing way forward.

Europe has the means to address homelessness and provide each and every person in our cities and regions with a roof over their head, and this is not an act of charity. It is solidarity in practice and a prerequisite for social cohesion.