#21: Sjoerdje van Heerden on…current trends of homelessness in European cities

Why is access to adequate housing and eradicating homelessness currently one of the most crucial urban challenges in Europe?

Housing is a fundamental and basic human need. Those without a home are more likely to face reduced life expectancy, health problems, discrimination, isolation and barriers to access to basic public services and benefits. Unfortunately, homelessness levels have risen in most parts of Europe during the last decade. It is believed that the financial crisis of 2008-2009 has aggravated the situation. At the same time, the profile of homeless people is also diversifying, with more young people and children, migrants, Roma and other disadvantaged minorities, women and families increasingly at risk. Together with those that lack access to affordable and/or adequate housing, they represent a growing group of people vulnerable to severe poverty and exclusion. Moreover, if the challenge of tackling homeless (and access to affordable and safe housing) is not met, high social costs are expected.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected homelessness?

First of all, the pandemic has put a spotlight on homelessness. The implementation of “stay at home” orders immediately made it clear that there are people who have no place to go to. The situation also stressed the inequalities in living conditions, with some families cramped in small unsafe apartments without access to (private) outdoor spaces.

One effect of the pandemic that we as JRC assume and investigate, is that the increased visibility of the homelessness population, paired with the need to provide emergency shelter, has improved information about the number of people living on the streets – including their profiles. In general, this is a difficult estimate to make.

The same assumption goes for the provision of COVID-19 vaccinations, which could serve as a way of estimating the homelessness population of a given territory in a structured manner.

Therefore, in terms of data availability, we expect the pandemic to have strengthened this, although of course, there are still many limitations to tackle. Anyway, the main benefit of having more data is that it lays the foundation for the design and implementation of better policies.

Are there any clear differences in e.g. rates of homelessness or current existing policies between smaller and larger-sized cities? If yes, why do these difference exist?

Homelessness is generally considered an urban issue. However, it also exists beyond large cities, in smaller cities and more rural towns and villages. One of the objectives of our study is to have a better understanding about homelessness in these types of areas. For this reason, we also include smaller cities, towns and villages. It is still too early to present results, however, in due course, we hope to be able to answer to what extent the percentage of homeless people in respect to the total population differs in comparison to larger cities, the same goes for homelessness profiles and the policies to reduce homelessness. In this respect, we might see that in smaller villages less formal structures or services are in place, relying more on the (generally stronger) social tissue of the community, including the church and local support groups.

 

What are current shortcomings on housing policies to focus on in the coming years?

Since JRC is the Science and Knowledge service of the European Commission, we would first stress the importance of data, crucially needed to provide empirical backing to homelessness and housing policies. It is not only data availability that is important, but we also need comparable data, especially when monitoring and analysing homelessness at the wider EU level, including all the different Member States. To construct such a comprehensive and harmonised database is still one of the main challenges.

Furthermore, before the pandemic started various European cities experienced a decline in affordable housing, especially impacting lower- and middle-class households. This development has been related to fast increasing house prices, driven by strong investor demand, and the conversion of permanent rental housing into short-term (tourist) rentals (see also our report: Who owns the city? A study on the financialisation of housing in EU cities). At the same time, the EU has experienced a backlog in new construction ever since the financial crisis of 2008. While we still have to see what the situation will be once the pandemic is over, it is likely that such shortages will still need to be addressed.

Should housing policies take an integrated approach when focusing on reducing homelessness? If yes, why is it so important?

Taking an integrated approach to urban challenges is being increasingly valued. The involvement of different types of stakeholders (at different administrative levels) helps to establish a common understanding of the policy challenges and commitment to policy implementation. It can further help to ensure concrete progress. Recently, European institutions, EU governments, social partners and civil society have committed to work together towards combatting homelessness in the EU. More specific, the ‘European Platform on Combatting Homelessness’ has been launched to trigger dialogue, facilitate mutual learning, improve evidence and monitoring, and strengthen cooperation among all actors that aim to combat homelessness. It specifically offers an opportunity to engage and work with local actors, including cities and service providers.

There is growing evidence that Housing First policies work best when they are part of an integrated homelessness strategy, especially among people with high and complex needs. Housing First polices offer permanent housing right in the beginning of the support programme, after which an integrated approach results in extensive interagency collaboration to meet diverse individual needs, for example, in terms of physical health, mental health, addiction, as well as social and economic integration.