With Covid-19 infections rising and all of us urged to “stay at home” again, we must urgently help those who simply have no home. The EU must take decisive action to solve Europe’s housing crisis, which currently sees four million Europeans living in a state of homelessness.
As Europe heads into winter and a second stronger wave of Covid-19 hits, the ongoing pandemic continues to highlight underlying social issues and the pressing need to alleviate them. This tragedy clearly shows how homelessness has spiraled out of control in Europe. An Intermon Oxfam report just warned Spanish authorities that 1.1 million citizens are predicted to fall into poverty.
Although emergency housing programs have reduced the number of rough sleepers in EU cities, pandemic-driven measures are fundamentally short-term and fail to tackle homelessness in its entirety. They are superficial, and over-reliance on them will only lead to a larger homeless population down the line. With companies shutting down and a drastic rise in unemployment rates for the fifth month since May, more citizens are struggling to pay their rent and many fail to do so.
Homelessness has a larger scope than just those living on the street. women suffering domestic violence are also considered homeless. Being trapped with their abuser during lockdown led to an increase of 30% more reports of domestic violence in France this spring according to the UN.
We call for a three-pronged approach to ending homelessness: networking homeless individuals to their available resources, supplementing housing-led initiatives with employment focused programs, and lastly, expanding housing accessibility and protection.
The lack of structured data among EU Member States makes it difficult to understand the true damage and impact of COVID on the homeless population. To combat homelessness while going forward, the EU should supplement housing-led initiatives like the Housing First approach, which prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness, with employment focused programs like Homeless Entrepreneur’s HELP program, which provides a support pathway to independence through incentivizing employment opportunities and fostering entrepreneurial activities.
Economic stability and active citizenship via work and volunteering will ensure better long term results towards an autonomous livelihood. Thus, we must incentivise employment opportunities and entrepreneurship. Sweden provides inspiration: hiring long-term unemployed reduces employers’ fees, consequently increasing the workforce. People suffering from homelessness need more than a home; they need a path to independence.
Beyond salaried employment, unemployed citizens need opportunities to build their professional network. A best practice program created by Barcelona-based NGO Homeless Entrepreneur, was designed to turn a liability in the tourism sector into an asset for addressing homelessness: #HomelessHostelsWork. This program rents hostel space which has been freed up by the lockdown to use as venues for their three-step HELP program.
Lastly, we must tackle central drivers of homelessness. This is a complex, multifaceted issue, and one key mission must be mitigating spiralling debt in vulnerable households. Predatory payday loans must be strictly regulated. Such services target already vulnerable demographics and send them into a downward spiral. They levy exorbitant interest rates off of people who are already plagued by economic hardship. People at risk need to be provided with information on how these businesses operate and how to protect themselves.
In lieu of these exploitative practices, alternative cash injections should be promoted. For example, people should be able to qualify for subsidies that alleviate the need for quick loans. Such subsidies should be coordinated by an EU-centralised platform that can assess applications and organise local payments. For individuals without bank accounts, or due to factors that require extra support, said sums could be provided directly to landlords to ensure that the recipient’s basic needs are cared for.
COVID is an overwhelming tragedy, but it presents an opportunity for Europe to do something that is long overdue: stepping up and driving a long-term strategy to reduce and prevent homelessness. It is crucial that the measures taken are coordinated by Brussels, and implemented at a member state level. This crisis impacts every European and we all deserve adequate housing. To institute change we started by launching a petition calling on the European Parliament to act by providing policy change and specific programs. Although this petition was unanimously voted through by the PETI-commission on 2 July 2020, no action has been taken to start planning or implementing our proposals. Poverty, like COVID, is a pandemic occurring worldwide, across Europe and crossing international boundaries that we must and will overcome. Europe has a duty here, and not delivering is indefensible.
Julia Boehme – Social Equality Policy Facilitator, Volt Europa
Andrew Funk – Founder, Homeless Entrepreneur,
Jessica Jones-Langley – Communications Lead, Volt Europa
Omri Preiss – Member, Volt Europa