The homelessness phenomenon
By: Núria Lambea Llop, predoctoral researcher of the UNESCO Chair of Housing, Rovira i Virgili University .
The UN supports, in the New Urban Agenda (Habitat III, Quito 2016), inclusive cities that can be equally used and enjoyed and promotes prosperity and quality of life for all (point 11). Thus, it specifically refers to homeless people, when showing the need to eradicate different forms of discrimination (point 20), to promote housing policies that focus on the needs of this group (31) and to adopt positive measures to improve their living conditions (point 33).
However, this proposal for the next 20 years is far from our current reality. Homelessness is not only a local or state phenomenon, but a European and global one in terms of growth and dimension.
In addition, in terms of accurate figures, it is difficult to estimate the importance of this phenomenon, since there is a whole area of hidden homelessness that is difficult to be detected. This is the case, for example, of those people who live in institutions, without a title or with relatives in a forced way (in fact, family solidarity has prevented many cases of homelessness after the crisis in 2007). This is also the case of those who live at risk of losing their home, under domestic violence, over-occupation or without the minimum habitability conditions. All of these cases are included in the FEANTSA definition of homelessness and housing exclusion (ETHOS table), accepted as a common framework in Europe and that goes beyond the roofless person that is usually associated with the term “homeless”.
Fortunately, more and more initiatives dealing with homelessness in Europe are appearing: the recent approval of the European Pillar of Social Rights (2017), the Spanish and Catalan Strategies approved for 2015-2020 and 2017 respectively, as well as Plans at a local level, creating Networks to Assist Homeless People, such as the one created in Tarragona. Now we should make these measures effective, bearing in mind that we face a complex phenomenon that needs a multidisciplinary approach, integrating different levels (public and private) and different fields of action (socio-sanitary, residential, formative, labor, etc.).
Likewise, despite the worthy work undertaken by administrations and social entities to effectively provide solutions to people who are already homeless, two more levels of intervention should added, as recommended by the European report “Pilot project – Promoting protection of the right to housing – Homelessness prevention in the context of evictions”, which was co-directed by the UNESCO Housing Chair URV. This report identifies those policies carried out by the 28 Member States that are considered to successfully prevent evictions and homelessness. Thus, governments should combine reaction measures (services and resources for homeless people, rapid rehousing, public aid) with an intermediate level of intervention, based on facing situations of risk (assistance and legal and institutional support, coordination between institutions, public aid) and, the most important, with a structural intervention level, i.e. prevention measures for the entire population (more social housing, consumer education, alternative to evictions, among others). This report is precisely the scientific basis of both the simulation experience “The Threshold” and “The Threshold” documentary, both produced by the UNESCO Housing Chair itself. In conclusion, there is an institutional will to cope with homelessness, but there is still a lot to be done. A key aspect is the awareness of society towards this unknown and sometimes misunderstood phenomenon: the three most usual factors to become homeless in Spain are losing a job, not being able to afford the housing payments and breaking down a relationship. In addition, the connection between evictions and homelessness is closely linked to the availability of personal, economic and social support, thus being risk factors the lack of family ties or living in a country with a weak welfare state. All these aspects are to some extend familiar to us, suffering them in a higher or lower intensity or proximity. A lack of home means a lack of a decent, adequate and safe place to fully develop the most personal, family and social dimension of the person. The lack of home deprives us of being able to exercise other fundamental rights such as privacy, freedom and the free development of personality, while excluding us from joining and participating in the society.
 This report can be accessed through the following link: https://publications.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/0c16776d-1e4e-11e6-ba9a-01aa75ed71a1/language-en.
Images from “The Threshold” documentary.