On December 16, 2010 the European Parliament adopted a declaration recognizing street homelessness as “an unacceptable violation of fundamental human rights.” The declaration called on the European Union (EU)’s 27 member states to end street homelessness by 2015.
In order to do so, the document urged member states to commit to a series of priorities. These include:
- An end to rough sleeping;
- No one living in emergency accommodation for longer than the period of an ‘emergency’;
- No one living in transitional accommodation longer than is required for a successful move-on;
- No one leaving an institution without housing options; and
- No young people becoming homeless as a result of the transition to independent living.
“Homelessness is possibly the most extreme form of poverty and social exclusion,” said Liz Lynne, a member of the European Parliament (MEP) from the United Kingdom (UK). She co-sponsored the declaration and helped draft it. “We believed the European Parliament needed to show leadership and campaign for the European Commission and EU member states to give homeless people a higher priority.
“Fighting poverty needs effective action to give every person an affordable home. There is no one model for achieving this. We wanted each country to agree on effective national strategies and to learn from each other.”
None of the EU member states is exempt from the problem of homelessness. In the Eastern European countries, the collapse of communist governments and the establishment of free market economies threw some people into poverty. In Western European countries, GNP rose but poverty remained. “Despite growing levels of prosperity in most EU countries in the two decades before the 2009 financial crisis, the levels of homelessness remained stubbornly high in many countries,” said Lynne.
Just how high those numbers are now is open to debate. In 2003, the EU Observatory put the number of people without a fixed home at three million. Fifteen million more were thought to be in substandard or overcrowded accommodations. Since then, no EU-wide homelessness count has been undertaken, although both the number of member states, and the number of homeless has increased since then. Trustworthy statistics are hard to come by. This is also something the declaration addressed, calling for a concerted effort to standardize statistical methodology. “One key role the EU can play is to promote greater agreement and consistency for collecting statistics of this kind,” said Lynne.
At a time of steep budget reductions in many member states, the declaration becomes all the more important, she said. “Budgets are under pressure, but the greatest obstacle to achieving the declaration’s goals is not money. I believe it’s cynicism and taking the view that nothing much can be done. We have barely scratched the surface of taking the most innovative and successful small-scale solutions and sharing that best practice in other areas. It is a mantra I repeat often: we must share best practice.”
“It is staggering that we do not do this more readily in EU countries. We face common problems and it surely makes sense for us to share effective solutions, which are good value for money. For instance, there are examples out there of shared ownership, part-rent and part-buy, which provides effective help for rough sleepers. They show what can be achieved without huge sums of public money, but still make a real difference.”
The framers of the European Parliament’s declaration recognize that street homelessness must be dealt with at the local level. “There is no question of the EU sponsoring major housing programs in member states. Local government, with direction and financial assistance from state governments, take the primary role. The role of the EU is highlighting the problems, urging joint agreements and follow-up action, sponsoring research, and the sharing of best practice from individual projects.”
In Lynne’s own UK constituency, the EU’s DAPHNE program, designed to help community groups combat violence, has partnered with a local university. They have designed a project to protect women sleeping rough in the area who are at a high risk of violence. Information is shared with cities in other countries facing similar problems.
EU politicians from across the spectrum of political ideologies no longer trust that the “trickle-down effect” will eradicate homelessness, said Lynne. Even in times of prosperity, those at the foot of the economic ladder will be left out.
“To abandon the fundamental need for basic affordable housing at this time would be a disastrous mistake. It would breach fundamental rights, allowing a large underclass to grow up without access to housing. It would also damage the labor market and hold back economic recovery. We need to provide innovative thinking and partnership solutions.”
Read the full text of the Declaration on an EU homelessness strategy.
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