Europe is facing a homelessness and housing crisis. A 2017 report by the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless paints an alarming picture. In Copenhagen, homelessness among young people has gone up by 75% since 2009. In Warsaw, there has been a 37% increase in people sleeping rough or in emergency shelters since 2013. The number of homeless people in the Netherlands has risen by 74% over the past six years. The number of people sleeping rough in England has doubled since 2010. One in 70 people in Athens are now homeless.
So, what can we do? Is the economy to blame? Is it austerity? Should we give money to people sleeping rough? Or is it better to give money to charities rather than giving directly to homeless people?
We had a comment from Victor, who argues that the true number of homeless people is difficult to measure (he says some people are “hidden homeless”). Is that true? And, even if it is, can we get a sense of whether the problem has been getting worse over the last decade?
To get a response, we spoke to Matthew Downie, Director of Policy & External Affairs at Crisis, a national UK charity for homeless people. What would he say?
Victor is right that the measures of homelessness are quite often wholly unreliable, particularly in the UK. That’s not only because it’s difficult to actually count homelessness, but also because the measures the government use are completely arbitrary. So, for example, if you’re somebody sleeping rough but when they come around to do the count of who’s sleeping rough you are sat up instead of lying down, you might not actually be counted as somebody who’s homeless. So, the measures themselves can be completely unreliable and are quite often just estimates and not actually counted.
But, despite all of those problems with counting, it’s definitely true that homelessness in all its forms in the UK has been going up. And it’s been going up fast. So, rough sleeping has gone up in England, for example, over 130% in the last five years. All the other different measures of homelessness – people needing rehousing, people in the hostel system, people needing night shelters – all of those things are going up fast. We’re now in a position where if it continues like this for the next five years we will be dealing with levels of homelessness that are the highest that have ever been recorded.
Next up, we had a comment from Andrea, who thinks there is a clear link between austerity measures and the level of homelessness. Is he right to draw such a link? How would Matthew Downie respond?
I would say to Andrea that there is certainly a link between choices that are made about the welfare safety net, about support services and the funding for those things, and homelessness. And a lot of people have very highly-evidence proof that homelessness has been a political decision. So, in some countries – and people particularly point to North America on this – they say there wasn’t actually homelessness anywhere near the level we see now before the 1980s austerity measures, and particularly the de-investment in social housing and the reduction of various different types of welfare safety nets. So, broadly speaking I agree. But it’s also worth saying that life just happens people, and even people on higher incomes. So, imagine a situation where somebody is thrown out by their husband or wife. So, even with the most generous systems in the world, there is still a need for a homelessness system that can pick up people and make sure they are rehoused as quickly as possible. But I would say that Andrea is definitely on to something, and that austerity measures have certainly contributed to the most recent and alarming rises of rough sleeping and other homelessness.
Finally, we had a comment from Ontus, who asks why a continent as wealthy as Europe still has such high levels of homelessness. What can ordinary people do about it? Should we give money to homeless people we meet on the streets, or should we rather give to charities?
This is a question we get all the time, and one of the reasons we get it all the time is that there’s no simple answer. You will find some homelessness organisations that resolutely say don’t ever give money or food to people on the streets because it will sustain them in their street lifestyle, and that’s bad for them and they might end up dead on the streets. Other people say it’s right to show compassion, and that reaching out and humanity is the first step for some people to realise they are valued and to engage in services. Our view is that it has to be a case-by-case choice. So, we would never preach and say you should never do that, but we would also say it’s worth bearing in mind the situation you find in front of you. If it’s someone you’ve never met before and don’t know what their situation is and you have any concern that money you give might be misused, then of course don’t feel obliged.
It is right, though, that when people think about what they can do as an everyday citizen they think about the organisations that are there to help those people. So, it depends where you live. So, certainly here in the UK there are things that the general public can do to report concerns about rough sleeping. There’s an app we have called StreetLink that people can use to report concerns about anybody sleeping rough. And my personal view is that the most effective thing people can do is to get the message across to their politicians that they don’t think it’s appropriate that people should be sleeping rough or homelessness in any form in the 21st century. That, for me, is the ultimate answer to the question.
What’s the best way to help the homeless? Is it by giving money to them directly, or should people rather donate to charities? Should governments be doing more? And what are some of the root causes of homelessness? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!
IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Wildwise Studio
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