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In Europe’s fight against homelessness “a moment of unprecedented opportunity”

Écrit par sur 28 mai 2020

For the homeless, what’s next? At the start of the lockdown, moves were made across the continent to help those in precarious circumstances self-isolate. But now that it is being eased, will there be a mass return to the streets for Europe’s most vulnerable?

We spoke to Ruth Owen deputy director of FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless, about Europe’s response to the question of homelessness during the pandemic, and looking forward. 

“The crisis has really shone a spotlight on homelessness. It’s an issue that often flies under the radar and is just seen as a fact of life. But when governments issue a general instruction to the population to stay home, homelessness comes to the fore. 

We’ve seen a huge range of measures going from massive temporary housing, to adaptations in shelters so that people are not so on top of each other, and opening up new shelters. And then compensating for some of the gaps that emerge very quickly in terms of basic services like food distribution, that are quite heavily reliant on volunteers. We also saw upstream measures, like introducing bans on evictions to make sure that we don’t have a huge inflow into homelessness.

Many thousands of homeless people have been provided with temporary housing. We’ve seen governments really step up. Local authorities especially have taken extraordinary measures to house homeless people in Airbnbs in cities like Dublin and Barcelona, or in hotel rooms that are lying empty in cities like Brussels and London.

And then in several countries we’ve seen the prolongation of winter programs and temporary shelters that are normally opened up during the winter season for homeless people. And obviously it was impossible to kick them out in the spring. In France, we’ve seen the creation of special medical centres for homeless people who need to self isolate, who have Covid-19 but who don’t require hospitalisation.

Now that governments have intervened on the question of homelessness on an unprecedented scale, can we expect to see a shift in attitudes going forward? Will European governments continue to see it as their responsibility to ensure housing for everyone, even outside times of crisis?

“I think that’s the vital question. I don’t know if I go as far as to say that we’re in a generally positive movement. I think we’re in a moment of unprecedented opportunity. And I think there’s a sensitivity to that opportunity. 

We’re seeing a range of government announcements. Like last week, announcements in the UK that all the homeless people who’ve been temporarily housed will be provided with permanent accommodation. But there’s a lot of devil in the detail to come, in terms of whether the resources are really adequate for that goal, and who’s who’s in and who’s out when you get down to the numbers. 

Local authorities are really on the front line and we’ve seen some local authorities take a real leadership role. In France, the case of Lyon is very interesting; they’ve really made a strong political commitment to zero return to the streets. But the resources need to follow.

What role might the EU play in all this?

“I think there’s huge potential for the EU to play a role. We fully expect the Commission to use the opportunity of this action plan on the European pillar of social rights. Covid-19 has revealed about how essential housing is and how we just cannot accept the levels of homelessness that we currently have in the European Union if we really are committed to social rights. 

When it comes to the funding, the issue is the way most of the funds are organized. The commission has been quite bold in its proposals for the MFF (the Multiannual Financial Framework) in terms of making it possible to use the European Regional Development Fund for social housing, and to use the European social fund for support measures for homeless people.

The question now is whether the member states use that opportunity. And it can be really difficult for local and regional authorities that want to, to engage with those programming processes. So I think that’s where the real challenge is and that’s the kind of work we need to do at European level and in partnership with local, regional and national authorities now, going forward.”

In France, the government has extended the winter accommodation program until the 10th of July, in line with the new end-date for the state of emergency.

So, according to François Bregou, from the Parisian charity Aux Captifs, La Liberation, it is still too early to say what the future for the city’s homeless looks like. The state he says has been very present throughout the crisis, however he warns of the dangers of a return to the streets in its aftermath: 

“C’est le gros danger malheureusement ; très classique par rapport aux personnes de la rue qui sont un temps hébergés et que l’on remet dans la rue. Elles peuvent retomber bien plus bas, et se dégrader bien plus que ce qu’elles ne l’étaient avant de se retrouver à l’abris.”

A stark warning then against a return to the status quo for Europe’s homeless. 

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