• Pierre Reiner

Europe sleeping rough: Parliament’s plans to end homelessness

Every night, hundreds of thousands are sleeping on the streets of Europe. Omnipresent yet often ignored, the homeless embody the undeniable failure of European social systems. Definitions vary considerably, but an individual is now generally considered homeless if they have no access to shelter (primary homelessness), or if they have no place of habitual residence, moving back and forth between different types of accommodation (secondary homelessness)[1]. Irrespective of rigid definitions and typologies, however, those experiencing homelessness often face the same enormous personal challenges of poverty, unemployment, health issues, trauma, addiction, social exclusion, etc.



What is new

As the year is nearing its end, the European Parliament has now launched one of its most significant attempts at tackling homelessness to date. Parliament’s decision comes after years of calls on the Commission to address the issue[2],[3],[4] as well as a number of European Union (EU) studies and reports highlighting its gravity[5]. The resolution – which received 647 votes in favor and just 13 opposed – maintains most of Parliament’s previous demands but adds one key element: Parliament is asking the EU to set the binding goal of eradicating homelessness by 2030[6].


To achieve this goal, Parliament calls on the Commission and the member states to develop a shared framework definition alongside homeless indicators to allow for systematic comparisons across countries. In the same breath, Parliament reminds the member states of their commitment to the United Nations SDGs and stresses that “access to housing is a fundamental human right for all people”[7].


Changes are overdue

Homelessness is rapidly rising in all EU countries except Finland[8]. Over the course of just the past 10 years, homelessness rates in Europe have grown by around 70 percent[9]. The nature of homelessness has been changing, too. Whereas we may traditionally associate the issue with single men, contemporary homelessness involves more and more women as well as families[10]. The homeless are more likely nowadays than in the past to be children, seniors, chronically ill, and/or LGBTQ[11]. On top of that, the risk of remaining without shelter for extended periods of time appears to be at a high, with many experiencing homelessness for several decades on end[12].


The reasons for homelessness are structural and complex but its recent surge can mainly be attributed to a handful of key drivers. For one, housing is becoming less and less accessible. Real estate prices are rising at unprecedented rates with a 5.2 percent increase in the EU over the course of the last year alone[13]. Living expenses are rising much faster than average incomes.


National reports to the European Social Policy Network (ESPN) overwhelmingly link homelessness to the lack of affordable housing, as caused by the privatization of the housing sector, the liberalization of rental markets, and falling public investments into social housing[14]. As Chloé Serme-Morin from the European Network of Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANSTA) notes, “people living below the poverty threshold are increasingly marginalized by a private rental market that feeds off a systematic lack of affordable housing”[15].


What is more, observers are now warning that housing discrimination is increasing in the EU – although a lack of adequate monitoring tools makes it difficult to measure this effect. In Germany, for example, research indicates that the share of citizens with migrant roots who report having experienced racially motivated housing discrimination is growing[16]. This impression is confirmed by the growing share of citizens with “serious or very serious reservations about renting an apartment to an immigrant”[17].


The other pandemic

Parliament’s initiative comes at a time of utmost urgency. The coronavirus pandemic has hit Europe hard and is set to exacerbate the housing crisis further. The European Parliament predicts an aggravation of the housing cost overburden situation in the next few years, following the economic recession and widespread job losses[18].

The true impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, maybe even more destructive than anticipated. Real estate market observers across the globe are ringing alarm bells as excessive construction activity and decoupling of prices from local incomes are indicating the emergence of a housing bubble[19]. Europe and Hongkong are global hot spots of this phenomenon, with the German cities of Munich and Frankfurt currently facing the highest risk of falling victim to a housing bubble.


Additionally, lockdowns and other coronavirus mitigation measures may indirectly reinforce underlying factors of homelessness. For instance, as Europeans experienced a drastic multiplication of domestic violence cases with each lockdown, we may expect to witness a surge of domestic abuse survivors falling into homelessness or housing instability[20].


The European dimension

Why should the issue of homelessness be dealt with at a European level? After all, housing policy is not an EU competency. Further, the nature and extent of homelessness vary considerably across member states and are subject to local contexts. On the one hand, Parliament’s continued efforts to put the topic on the EU’s agenda are commendable. As the free movement has been a key contributing factor to the current homelessness crisis, there is a clear European dimension to the problem[21].


On the other hand, Parliament has only done as much as offer an ambitious goal and propose that member states proceed with the open method of coordination (OMC) going forward. There are currently no enforcement or accountability mechanisms on the table. The issue also does not appear to have caught much public attention, as news about the COVID-19 pandemic continues to dominate the headlines. It is therefore highly questionable whether member states will truly be willing to devote sufficient resources to the eradication of homelessness – particularly in our current phase of crisis and economic recession.


Conclusion

Parliament’s decision and the OMC approach may indeed foster best practices and multi-actor cooperation, but they are totally inadequate to tackle the enormous challenge of homelessness today. Doing so would require much larger and more resolute action.


This should involve strengthening the job market, removing barriers to entry in employment, addressing declining mental health, proactively offering social support to at-risk citizens, and more. An effective anti-homelessness policy would be impossible without ramping up investments in social housing, boosting the social welfare system, and regulating the private real estate market to prevent a housing bubble. Ending homelessness in the EU is a difficult task, yes, but it is not an insurmountable one. We cannot accept homelessness as "just another ‘fact of life’ in the EU"[22] but need to recognize it as a social product of the indefensible shortcomings of national governments in Europe.


Bibliography

Baptista, Isabel, and Eric Marlier. “Fighting Homelessness and Housing Exclusion in Europe. A Study of National Policies.” Accessed December 20, 2020. https://ec.europa.eu/social/BlobServlet?docId=21629&langId=en.

Bosen, Ralf. “Racism on the Rise in Germany.” Accessed December 26, 2020. https://www.dw.com/en/racism-on-the-rise-in-germany/a-53735536.

Cokelaere, Hanne. “Free Movement Adds to EU’s Homelessness Crisis.” Accessed December 27, 2020. https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-free-movement-homelessness-crisis/.

European Parliament. “Resolution on Meeting the Antipoverty Target in the Light of Increasing Household Costs.” Accessed December 20, 2020. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-8-2016-0136_EN.html.

European Parliament. “Motion for a Resolution on European Semester for Economic Policy Coordination.” Accessed December 20, 2020. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A-8-2019-0162_EN.html.

European Parliament. “Housing: Urgent Action Needed to Address Homelessness in Europe.” Accessed December 20, 2020. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/agenda/briefing/2020-01-13/11/housing-urgent-action-needed-to-address-homelessness-in-europe.

European Parliament. “How Parliament Wants to End Homelessness in the EU.” Accessed December 26, 2020. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20201119STO92006/how-parliament-wants-to-end-homelessness-in-the-eu.

European Parliament. “Resolution on Tackling Homelessness Rates in the EU.” Accessed December 23, 2020. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-9-2020-0314_EN.html.

Harper, Jo. “Global Housing Markets 'Overheating' Amid Pandemic Stimulus?” Accessed December 27, 2020. https://www.dw.com/en/global-housing-markets-overheating-amid-pandemic-stimulus/a-55282914.

Mendes Godinho, Ana, Nicolas Schmit, and Yves Leterme. “Homelessness Cannot Be Just Another ‘Fact of Life’ in the EU.” Accessed December 27, 2020. https://www.euractiv.com/section/economy-jobs/opinion/homelessness-cannot-be-just-another-fact-of-life-in-the-eu/.

Serme-Morin, Chloé. “Homelessness and Housing Exclusion Have Reached Crisis Levels in EU.” Accessed December 23, 2020. https://www.euractiv.com/section/economy-jobs/opinion/homelessness-and-housing-exclusion-have-reached-crisis-levels-in-eu/.

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. “Enumeration of Homeless People.” Accessed December 20, 2020. https://unstats.un.org/unsd/censuskb20/Attachments/2009MPHASIS_ECE_Homeless-GUID25ae612721cc4c2c87b536892e1ed1e1.pdf.


Citations [1] United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, “Enumeration of Homeless People,” accessed December 20, 2020, https://unstats.un.org/unsd/censuskb20/Attachments/2009MPHASIS_ECE_Homeless-GUID25ae612721cc4c2c87b536892e1ed1e1.pdf. [2] European Parliament, “Resolution on Meeting the Antipoverty Target in the Light of Increasing Household Costs,” accessed December 20, 2020, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-8-2016-0136_EN.html. [3] European Parliament, “Motion for a Resolution on European Semester for Economic Policy Coordination,” accessed December 20, 2020, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A-8-2019-0162_EN.html. [4] European Parliament, “Housing: Urgent Action Needed to Address Homelessness in Europe,” accessed December 20, 2020, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/agenda/briefing/2020-01-13/11/housing-urgent-action-needed-to-address-homelessness-in-europe. [5] Isabel Baptista and Eric Marlier, “Fighting Homelessness and Housing Exclusion in Europe. A Study of National Policies.” European Social Policy Network (ESPN), accessed December 20, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/social/BlobServlet?docId=21629&langId=en. [6] European Parliament, “Resolution on Tackling Homelessness Rates in the EU,” accessed December 23, 2020, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-9-2020-0314_EN.html. [7] European Parliament, “Resolution on tackling homelessness rates in the EU” [8] Chloé Serme-Morin, “Homelessness and Housing Exclusion Have Reached Crisis Levels in EU,” Euractiv, accessed December 23, 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/economy-jobs/opinion/homelessness-and-housing-exclusion-have-reached-crisis-levels-in-eu/. [9] European Parliament, “Resolution on tackling homelessness rates in the EU” [10] Baptista and Marlier, “Fighting homelessness and housing exclusion in Europe. A study of national policies.” 23. [11] Baptista and Marlier, “Fighting homelessness and housing exclusion in Europe. A study of national policies.” [12] Baptista and Marlier, “Fighting homelessness and housing exclusion in Europe. A study of national policies.” [13] European Parliament, “How Parliament Wants to End Homelessness in the EU,” accessed December 26, 2020, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20201119STO92006/how-parliament-wants-to-end-homelessness-in-the-eu. [14] Baptista and Marlier, “Fighting homelessness and housing exclusion in Europe. A study of national policies.” 107–8. [15] Serme-Morin, “Homelessness and housing exclusion have reached crisis levels in EU” [16] Ralf Bosen, “Racism on the Rise in Germany,” Deutsche Welle News, accessed December 26, 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/racism-on-the-rise-in-germany/a-53735536. [17] Bosen, “Racism on the rise in Germany” [18] European Parliament, “Resolution on tackling homelessness rates in the EU” [19] Jo Harper, “Global Housing Markets 'Overheating' Amid Pandemic Stimulus?,” Deutsche Welle News, accessed December 27, 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/global-housing-markets-overheating-amid-pandemic-stimulus/a-55282914. [20] Baptista and Marlier, “Fighting homelessness and housing exclusion in Europe. A study of national policies.” [21] Hanne Cokelaere, “Free Movement Adds to EU’s Homelessness Crisis,” Politico, accessed December 27, 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-free-movement-homelessness-crisis/. [22] Ana Mendes Godinho, Nicolas Schmit, and Yves Leterme, “Homelessness Cannot Be Just Another ‘Fact of Life’ in the EU,” Euractiv, accessed December 27, 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/economy-jobs/opinion/homelessness-cannot-be-just-another-fact-of-life-in-the-eu/.


[1] United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, “Enumeration of Homeless People,” accessed December 20, 2020, https://unstats.un.org/unsd/censuskb20/Attachments/2009MPHASIS_ECE_Homeless-GUID25ae612721cc4c2c87b536892e1ed1e1.pdf.

[1] European Parliament, “Resolution on Meeting the Antipoverty Target in the Light of Increasing Household Costs,” accessed December 20, 2020, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-8-2016-0136_EN.html.

[1] European Parliament, “Motion for a Resolution on European Semester for Economic Policy Coordination,” accessed December 20, 2020, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A-8-2019-0162_EN.html.

[1] European Parliament, “Housing: Urgent Action Needed to Address Homelessness in Europe,” accessed December 20, 2020, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/agenda/briefing/2020-01-13/11/housing-urgent-action-needed-to-address-homelessness-in-europe.

[1] Isabel Baptista and Eric Marlier, “Fighting Homelessness and Housing Exclusion in Europe. A Study of National Policies.” European Social Policy Network (ESPN), accessed December 20, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/social/BlobServlet?docId=21629&langId=en.

[1] European Parliament, “Resolution on Tackling Homelessness Rates in the EU,” accessed December 23, 2020, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-9-2020-0314_EN.html.

[1] European Parliament, “Resolution on tackling homelessness rates in the EU”

[1] Chloé Serme-Morin, “Homelessness and Housing Exclusion Have Reached Crisis Levels in EU,” Euractiv, accessed December 23, 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/economy-jobs/opinion/homelessness-and-housing-exclusion-have-reached-crisis-levels-in-eu/.

[1] European Parliament, “Resolution on tackling homelessness rates in the EU”

[1] Baptista and Marlier, “Fighting homelessness and housing exclusion in Europe. A study of national policies.” 23.

[1] Baptista and Marlier, “Fighting homelessness and housing exclusion in Europe. A study of national policies.”

[1] Baptista and Marlier, “Fighting homelessness and housing exclusion in Europe. A study of national policies.”

[1] European Parliament, “How Parliament Wants to End Homelessness in the EU,” accessed December 26, 2020, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20201119STO92006/how-parliament-wants-to-end-homelessness-in-the-eu.

[1] Baptista and Marlier, “Fighting homelessness and housing exclusion in Europe. A study of national policies.” 107–8.

[1] Serme-Morin, “Homelessness and housing exclusion have reached crisis levels in EU”

[1] Ralf Bosen, “Racism on the Rise in Germany,” Deutsche Welle News, accessed December 26, 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/racism-on-the-rise-in-germany/a-53735536.

[1] Bosen, “Racism on the rise in Germany”

[1] European Parliament, “Resolution on tackling homelessness rates in the EU”

[1] Jo Harper, “Global Housing Markets 'Overheating' Amid Pandemic Stimulus?,” Deutsche Welle News, accessed December 27, 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/global-housing-markets-overheating-amid-pandemic-stimulus/a-55282914.

[1] Baptista and Marlier, “Fighting homelessness and housing exclusion in Europe. A study of national policies.”

[1] Hanne Cokelaere, “Free Movement Adds to EU’s Homelessness Crisis,” Politico, accessed December 27, 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-free-movement-homelessness-crisis/.

[1]Ana Mendes Godinho, Nicolas Schmit, and Yves Leterme, “Homelessness Cannot Be Just Another ‘Fact of Life’ in the EU,” Euractiv, accessed December 27, 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/economy-jobs/opinion/homelessness-cannot-be-just-another-fact-of-life-in-the-eu/.

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