Each of the 27 countries in the European Union (EU) has its own population of people who have no fixed residence. Each nation responds with its own policies. Homelessness, in one form or another, affects all these countries. The European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA), based in Brussels, was founded 20 years ago to facilitate the exchange of information between national administrations. It is an umbrella of not-for-profit organizations, which participate in the fight against homelessness in Europe.
“FEANTSA is a NGO [non-governmental organization], and our members are federations of national and regional NGOs offering services to homeless people,” said Freek Spinnewijn, a Belgian who is the organization’s director. “We’re not a think tank. What is unique about FEANTSA is that we have a research network inside our NGO structure. In that sense, people may regard us as a center of expertise.”
Eighty percent of FEANTSA’s financing comes from the EU, and 20 percent from member organizations. Its mission is not to create a pan-European policy toward homelessness, but rather to gather and coordinate information from its member states. “There are some countries that have similar problems, but if you take Europe as a whole, there are quite big differences,” said Spinnewijn. “We don’t interfere in domestic policy-making. We stay at the European level as much as possible.
“I think the diversity of member countries is a richness. Even if some of the things happening in some countries are not transferable to other countries, it can serve as a source of inspiration and education. The feedback we get from our members is that they find it is very interesting to know what is happening in other countries.
“Migration is an example. Some countries are very affected by it, and the impact of migration on homelessness is huge for them. In other countries, it’s much less of an issue but it’s still interesting for them to know how countries facing this problem are dealing with it.”
In fact, migration is assuming a more important place on FEANTSA’s list of priorities, said Spinnewijn. “Many of our members are seeing increasing numbers of people with unclear legal statuses in their services.”
Across Europe, countries are debating whether to allow the use of social services by undocumented immigrants. In fact, at a recent European Consensus Conference on Homelessness, sponsored by FEANTSA and the European Commission, one of the six “key” questions on the agenda was to what extent should people be able to access homeless services irrespective of their legal status and citizenship.
The conference concluded by stating that the homeless sector should not be held responsible for the flaws in a migration policy. For instance, if a homeless shelter wants to provide services to an unsheltered person who is undocumented, the shelter should not be criminalized for it.
Spinnewijn is quick to point out that while it is a key question, it is not the only one. “Homelessness in Europe cannot be reduced to an immigrant problem, even in countries that are affected quite strongly by migration like France or the UK. But, we cannot deny that migration policies have an impact on the homeless sector. It is an issue, but stricter migration policies will not solve the homeless crisis.”
Another current priority in Europe is the quality of services being provided to those without shelter. “It’s becoming a bigger and bigger issue in the different countries, but also at a European level. It concerns the quality of shelters and hostels, as well as a larger discussion about the role of hostels and temporary solutions for the homeless. Quality is a major issue for FEANTSA right now.”
A continuing priority for the organization is the right to housing. FEANTSA has initiated a number of complaints in the Council of Housing against member states for violations of the right to housing in the Charter of Europe. While the complaints do not carry legal sanctions, they help to create jurisprudence on the European level. According to Spinnewijn, they have substantial political value because decisions put pressure on the member states to address the issues in the complaints. In 2008, a complaint against France was won. In 2009, another was won against Slovenia.
Homelessness is becoming an increasingly important concern for EU policymakers, according to Spinnewijn. On December 16, 2010, a majority of the European Parliament adopted a declaration calling on the EU and member countries to take concrete steps towards ending homelessness. “This calls for a new strategy towards homelessness. The fact that the European Parliament asked for it is major political progress. The political context is quite favorable. What we still have to do is translate the commitment into concrete action.”
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