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close this bookStrategies to Combat Homelessness (HABITAT, 2000, 228 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPreface
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentList of acronyms
View the documentExecutive summary
Open this folder and view contentsI. Introduction
Open this folder and view contentsII. Defining homelessness
Open this folder and view contentsIII. The scale of homelessness (in selected countries)
Open this folder and view contentsIV. Why are people homeless?
Open this folder and view contentsV. Characteristics of homeless people
Open this folder and view contentsVI. Street children
Open this folder and view contentsVII. Interventions for and with homeless people
Open this folder and view contentsVIII. Interventions for and with street children
Open this folder and view contentsIX. Recent policy developments
Open this folder and view contentsX. Conclusions and proposals for combating homelessness
View the documentAnnex 1. A selection of important international instruments on homelessness and the right to housing
View the documentAnnex 2. What does adequate housing mean?
View the documentList of references
View the documentThe United National Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat) has launched a Global Campaign for Secure Tenure.

Executive summary

I. Introduction

1. This report gathers together experiences of homelessness from a wide range of countries to shed light on the issues involved in combating it. For clarity, two sets of divisions are used. The regional information is grouped into high-income industrial countries, countries with economies in transition and developing countries. The issues of street children are dealt with separately from those of other homeless persons

2. Even in high-income countries, increasing numbers of households are living on low incomes or in poverty, with young people being worst hit. The risks of homelessness have increased, partly due to the general trend towards reducing social welfare. Increased commercialisation in the housing sector has made low-income groups increasingly dependent on various forms of housing benefits.

3. Adequate housing is recognised by the United Nations as a human right. Rights-based housing strategies have thus been developed, urging governments to combat, reduce and eradicate homelessness.

II. Defining homelessness

4. Homelessness can be seen as a condition of detachment from society characterised by the lack of the affiliative bonds that link people into their social structures. Homelessness carries implications of belonging nowhere rather than simply having nowhere to sleep.

5. A theoretical definition of homelessness has widened out from embracing only those sleeping rough to include risk and causality. Broader definitions of homelessness are both more useful for policy and more contentious. More wide-ranging interpretations of homelessness include those in overcrowded, insecure or substandard accommodation, those forced into involuntary sharing of shelter, or those subjected to high levels of noise pollution or infestation.

6. Definitions of homelessness developed in high-income industrial countries can be viewed as points on a continuum rather than as discrete categories. All include those who live in accommodation that does not reach certain standards as well as those with no accommodation at all. Definitions used elsewhere are more conjectural. In Eastern Europe some countries include those in sub-standard housing, others do not. Furthermore, there is still a tendency in this region to classify homeless people as either deserving or undeserving.

7. In developing countries, some define homelessness as having no land or shelter, while others include living in sub-standard housing. As in high-income industrial countries, people living rough on the streets may (perversely as it may seem) be excluded from the homelessness figures and policy. Many countries have no official concern for homeless people, even to the extent of denying their existence.

8. Homelessness is described in this report as not having an acceptable level of housing provision. It would include all states below what may be regarded as adequate for the reference society. To classify someone as homeless indicates a state in which 'something must be done' for the victim of such circumstances.

9. In developing countries, it is proposed to fix the threshold at what an average person would regard as inadequate or unacceptable. This report wishes to avoid that the unique and urgent needs of the people defined by the most narrow definition of homelessness are lost and neglected. For the special issues raised by homeless people, rather than by the inadequately housed, a relatively narrow definition is more helpful at this time in developing countries.

III. The scale of homelessness (in selected countries)

10. Available national statistics reflect the different national approaches to homelessness. As long as most of the data on homelessness stems from service providers, the countries with the best-developed service systems record the highest levels of homelessness. This is known as the service-statistics-paradox. Undercounts, double counts, the problem of mobility, and hidden homelessness also affect estimates of homeless populations.

11. The highest recorded rates of homeless people accepting services and people sleeping rough in Western Europe are found in Germany, France and the United Kingdom, where between 4 and 12 per thousand of the population is estimated to be homeless. All other countries in the region have homelessness rates of less than 2 per thousand.

12. In the United States of America, about 1.5-2.5 people per thousand population are absolutely or temporarily homeless, i.e., users of public shelters. About seven million Americans have experienced homelessness, some for brief periods and some for years. They are highly concentrated in the largest cities and among some groups like Vietnam War veterans.

13. In Canada, about 5 people per thousand population use emergency shelters. Combined with census figures, these give national estimates of 130-260,000 homeless people. There are about 19,500 homeless people in Japan, 70 per cent of whom are in Osaka and Tokyo.

14. In Eastern Europe, following the collapse of the socialist economies, many people have lost their jobs and workers hostels have closed down. At the same time, housing prices and utility fees have started to grow towards market levels. As a result, a large portion of society faces payment difficulties and the threat of eviction.

15. Data for homelessness in developing countries is extremely sparse and scattered. The most comprehensive is probably in India where the 1981 Homeless Census estimated that there were 2,342,000 homeless people. The 1991 Census of India showed a much lower figure of 1.2 million people. Yet, there are some 250,000 pavement dwellers in Mumbai alone.

IV. Why are people homeless?

16. Homelessness may be understood as comprising two broad (sometimes overlapping) categories of people with problems. The first tends to be transient in homelessness but continually at risk. People live through periods of crisis in lives that are marked by poverty. For these people, shelters coupled with help for other problems are appropriate.

17. The second category comprises the minority who are the most visible and tend to dominate the public's image of homelessness. Alcohol and other drug abuse, severe mental illness, chronic health problems or longstanding family difficulties may compound whatever unemployment and housing problems they have. Their situation is more complex than that of those who are homeless because of crisis poverty.

18. An economic analysis suggests that homelessness occurs where the core economic institutions cannot produce and distribute housing resources effectively. Effective interventions, therefore, cannot afford to ignore the nature of economic institution policy.

19. A social analysis suggests that homelessness occurs when core social relations have changed so that traditional households cannot function adequately. Intervention such as family support, child protection, family mediation and the prevention of domestic violence can be important.

20. A political analysis suggests that political institutions are unresponsive to the needs of the most vulnerable people and cannot achieve an equitable distribution of housing. It highlights three important aspects of homelessness. Firstly, homeless people and their advocates should attempt to influence the political process, often in opposition to such powerful groups as homeowners and the housing industry. Secondly, homelessness is a sign of the inequitable distribution of housing costs and benefits in the community. Thirdly, effective intervention in the realm of social policy and programmes cannot be ignored.

21. Eviction is a source of homelessness for many households. Women face particular problems due to unequal property inheritance rights. Forced evictions are often carried out by government or local authorities but are the subject of international condemnation. The United Nations recognises forced evictions as a gross violation of human rights and urges all governments to undertake immediate measures.

22. Natural and human-made disasters cause large numbers of people to be homeless. Rapid urbanisation and poverty have pushed people to live in inadequately built houses on dangerous and marginal sites. Tragically, in such poor environmental conditions, the occurrence of a natural hazard can lead to many people being homeless in addition to the death and destruction.

V. Characteristics of homeless people

23. Homeless people are characterised by poverty but they may not be poorer than the lower echelons of the housed population. Their state renders them insecure and vulnerable to threats and violence. Many homeless people live in households and there are also many children and youth. The number of such 'throw-away' and 'run-away' young people are increasing, often related to family strife, and caused by changes in family structure and unemployment.

24. Many homeless people have dependencies on narcotics, inhalants and alcohol. People with physical and mental illness are over-represented in the homeless population (at least in industrial countries where information is available). These are not necessarily direct causes of homelessness. In some cases, such dependencies may even be the result rather than the cause of homelessness. Ethnic minorities and migrants are over-represented in the homeless population.

25. The rural dimension to homelessness has been almost absent in policy debates. In part, this reflects the geography of relief; rural people are apt to move to urban areas to use the emergency services found there. In part, also, it reflects the distinctive character of rural homelessness in which people tend to try to cope through makeshift arrangements that render homelessness more hidden.

VI. Street children

26. Street children are a category of homeless people that present distinct issues from the adult homeless population. Street children can broadly be categorised into three groups. Only the last of these are actually homeless, the other can best be characterised as being at risk of homelessness:

· Children at high risk are those who live in households that do not satisfy their basic human needs. They may spend time in the streets to work or 'hang out' and are exposed to street culture. It is this marginal group that is at most risk of becoming street children.

· Children in (or on) the streets are youngsters who spend a substantial portion of their time in the streets, usually as child workers but tend to maintain a strong family link.

· Children of the streets tends to be few compared with the multitude seen working in the streets. These children have had their family ties severed through running away, abandonment, family disintegration or death of their parent(s). Many are abandoned or orphaned. They are socialised outside of the schools and the family with few conventional contacts with adults.

27. There are anywhere between 30 and 170 million street children world-wide and between 8 and 50 million in Latin America. The large range illustrates how difficult it is to count street children accurately. There are also large numbers of orphans in institutions, generated by major catastrophes, wars and HIV/AIDS. In the United States of America, there are probably more than 600,000 homeless children at any given time, about one-fifth of the homeless population. India is estimated to have 44 million children working on the streets but this may be overestimated. In Africa, there are probably some 32 million street children by 2000.

28. Poverty is the major cause of street children. It leads to some breakdown of families and moral values pushing children into the streets in search of opportunities to support themselves and their families. Land reform, population growth, drought, rural to urban migration, economic recession, unemployment, and violence has also been implicated. Some may also be responding to needs for space, supportive new relationships, or responsibility for their own lives.

29. Street children have to endure poor conditions. Violence plays a seemingly increasing role in their everyday lives. At the extreme, death squads slaughter street children. There is also a growth of violence among street children and between street children and adults. They are often robbed or have to pay 'protection money'. In addition and, perhaps, more damagingly, street children are generally disparaged by the rest of society and consequently suffer from very low self-esteem.

30. Several studies have shown that around 80 per cent of street children use drugs regularly. Glue is cheap and easily bought. It provides temporary oblivion to cold, heat, hunger pangs, fear, loneliness, and despondency. Unfortunately, children are quickly and easily addicted, and tend to spend whatever petty cash they have on glue, rather than on other necessities.

31. Trauma and certain infections tend to be more common among children of the street than among those based at home. However, street children's nutrition is no worse than other children from similar backgrounds are. They are very prone to sexually transmitted diseases as they are likely to be the victims of rape, or they may barter sex. As their focus is on the present, street children find it difficult to bother about a disease (such as HIV/AIDS) that may not kill them for years to come.

32. In high-income industrial countries, many street children have run away from home to escape physical or sexual abuse. Many have received implicit messages from the family to leave (through physical abuse or neglect) until they finally run away. Many of the young people became homeless when they were evicted from their own house or had to leave state care. Such young people are faced with options that include a private flat or room, staying with friends, sleeping rough (outside), and squatting (living in an unoccupied building). In developing countries, many children sleep in transport terminals, stadia, footpaths, parks, or organised shelters. Others make shelters with scrap materials or hire space in the courtyards of houses or in shop doorways.

VII. Interventions for and with homeless people

33. The by far most important intervention on homelessness is to ensure that people does not become homeless in the first place. Efforts to improve the housing stock available to people living in poverty are an essential part of a homelessness strategy. These efforts should include, inter alia, improvements in securing tenure to prevent eviction, provision of services and care and, especially, measures to overcome poverty.

34. Interventions to reduce and prevent homelessness are changing to reflect the change from a welfare approach to a rights-based approach, as spelled out in the internationally agreed instruments. However, it is clear from the varied nature of homeless people, the focus of their problems, and their socio-economic characteristics, that the responses must also be varied. Thus, there is a need for very different types of responses to people in various positions on the home-to-homelessness continuum. Responses in developing countries need to be radically different from those in high-income industrial countries, with the countries of Eastern Europe and some rapidly developing Asian countries somewhere in between.

35. A combination of availability of services and a process of appraisal as to people's needs, abilities, aspirations and problems is an absolute requirement in order to provide an appropriate response to homelessness. Only through appraisal can clients be fitted into the appropriate type of shelter and provided with social and other support services.

36. The initial critical step in reaching out to homeless people is outreach, even with those at first considered to be 'unreachable'. Formerly homeless people can be particularly effective workers in this. The most basic forms of outreach are the soup kitchens, emergency responses in very cold weather, and night shelters.

37. Supportive housing (housing linked with supportive services) is an important part of re-integration strategies. A range of multiple dwellings are needed to handle people with differing needs. Yet, such housing has an impressive record of success even when located in undesirable neighbourhoods. Permanent housing is, of course, the target accommodation. It may need subsidising at least until the formerly homeless person achieves stable economic circumstances. Such a subsidy seems to be both desirable and manageable in all but the poorest economies.

38. Inter-agency co-ordination is required for a strategic response to homelessness. Major efforts are needed to remove barriers to homeless people's receiving benefits and services, and to avoid gaps and duplication, and to make the most of every dollar spent.

39. As work is so important for most people's economic survival, many initiatives for homeless people involve some enterprise development and skills training. Sometimes these are based around the services for homeless people; sometimes they are just useful jobs for which homeless people are conveniently located. As many homeless people in developing countries are involved in low-paid self-employment, micro-finance can be very effective in improving their productivity to the extent that they can become self-supporting in secure accommodation.

40. 'Street cleaning operations' to eliminate the unsightly efforts of homeless people are, perhaps, the worst practice towards homeless people. Countless such operations have been implemented with major disruption to the fragile life chances of the unfortunate people involved.

41. It is important to involve all actors and stakeholders, including homeless people of all types, in service provision. All forms of exclusion should be avoided. Local authorities have a pivotal role in addressing homeless people's welfare as their problems arise at the municipal level. Since the 1980s, a wide range of NGOs have shown themselves capable of developing and delivering effective services and innovative approaches in partnership with each other and with other public and private providers. Indeed, they are currently extremely important in providing front-line services to homeless people.

VIII. Interventions for and with street children

42. Appropriate interventions for street children should vary depending on the circumstances of the children. Those already on the streets can be assisted through aggressive but sensitive outreach, which allows the street children to become involved in services at their own pace. For those where family involvement is weak and behaviour is often non-conforming, there should be intensive short-term services to reinforce or supplement family support and assist them in matters of personal adjustment. Those who are still firmly within the family - but might see street life as attractive - can be helped through preventive educational programmes.

43. It is important that rehabilitation programmes do not simply 'batch process' children and rely on children's passivity. Many NGO outreach programmes are now entirely street based, providing food and medical support and, more rarely, educational, psychological, and legal support. The success of such programmes contradicts the views that the family dynamics of street children are beyond repair.

44. Increasing numbers of governments and NGOs are developing policies and programmes that provide care and protection to vulnerable children through open-door centres, and outreach activities for the children and their families. They encourage a more child-friendly attitude among policy makers and officials responsible for institutions. It is important to improve skills and relevant training and change the attitudes of all parties dealing with street children.

45. It is clear that the problem posed by street children is not one that any one agency can hope to solve single-handedly. Collaboration between agencies and partnerships with volunteers from civil society are vital. Such collaboration should result in avoiding duplication (especially at project level), and should improve access to social work expertise.

46. The mothers of street children tend to be too poor to have a chance to protect their children and provide them with a secure future. Interventions that improve women's employment and economic position are important preventative measures. In addition, it is important to try to prevent children from becoming street children by targeting and including the poorer and less educated sections of the population.

IX. Recent policy developments

47. In high-income industrial countries, there has been a shift in public policy from remedial treatment and control towards a more preventative approach. However, changes in statistical and legal definitions of home-lessness discussed above show that such a trend is not unambiguous. Developments within the traditional housing sector and the emergence of a new 'partnership approach' appear to be most important.

48. In high-income industrial countries, there is now a more targeted policy environment and a more detached social housing sector than a decade ago. There has been a change in approach towards interagency collaboration.

49. If homelessness is to be eradicated, the causes of homelessness should be addressed for broad and sometimes overlapping groups of homeless people: those in crisis poverty and those suffering from chronic disabilities. A two-pronged strategy seems to be a general model:

· to take emergency measures to bring those who are currently homeless back into mainstream society; and

· to address the structural needs for housing and social infrastructure for the very poor, to prevent the occurrence of homelessness.

50. Co-operatively formulated policy partnerships have the potential to deliver efficient organisations for innovative, flexible and individualised problem solving. The trend away from categories and towards more individualised services requires the combination of resources across a variety of formal organisations and professions. This network style of management is intended to encourage moves away from large-scale bureaucratic public agencies towards more collaborative organisational structures.

51. The continuum of care is offered as a useful structure for interventions. This would have three distinct components of organisation; emergency shelter assessment to identify an individual's or family's needs; transitional or rehabilitative services for those who need them; and permanent or supportive housing arrangements for every homeless individual and family. Not all homeless individuals and families in a community will need to access all three components but all three should be co-ordinated.

52. In several countries in Western Europe, the idea of the 'staircase of transition' as a means for re-integration is gaining ground in national policies. The idea is that homeless people can improve their housing conditions step by step, in terms of housing standards, rights to privacy, and control over the home in 'dwellings for training'. The service providers gradually reduce support and control until the once homeless person becomes an independent tenant. However, this system may turn out to be a 'staircase of exclusion'. Landlords have no incentives for converting a transitional contract or a 'dwelling for training' into an independent tenancy. Thus, the 'final step' for the client is postponed or even removed. At the same time, social authorities can use referral to lower steps of the 'staircase' as sanctions, resulting in downward mobility and what are called 'revolving-door effects'.

53. In the countries with economies in transition policies differ on the basis of how far the State recognises homelessness. There appear to be three distinctive stages:

· In the first stage the number of homeless people grows dramatically. There is economic breakdown, closure of workers' hostels, the appearance of a 'real-estate mafia', and surging utility prices. Owing to weak economic performance, a social housing policy is not an affordable solution, so shelters are established.

· In the second stage, the number of homeless people begins to stabilise as, unfortunately, the new additions are offset by high mortality among existing homeless people. At this stage, a system of shelters is being established which, though insufficiently, can provide some sort of help. At this stage, discussions start on how homeless policies should try to reintegrate homeless people into society. However, regulations tend to be confusing and there is likely to be deep distrust so it is very unlikely that homeless people receive all the benefits to which they are entitled.

· The third stage of homelessness comes when the number of homeless people grows dramatically. This tends to be the case when transformation to a market economy is almost complete but rising prices are not compensated through higher wages, and only the most needy are targeted in the social security regulations. So far only very limited steps have been taken to construct a new social policy framework in these states which could prevent this homelessness 'explosion' and they tend to concentrate on improving the currently existing shelters.

54. Developing countries are still at a stage where changes in policy affecting housing supply are the main ones to affect the incidence of and means of addressing homelessness. In this, perhaps the most important has been the structural adjustment programmes over the last two decades. The Global Strategy for Shelter to the Year 2000 and the Habitat Agenda have set up an enabling environment for housing in which it can be provided through public-private partnerships and through the private sector. In practice, however, this has generally reduced the supply of social housing and there will remain a need for specific provision for homeless people.

X. Conclusions and proposals for combating homelessness

55. Credible data on homelessness for many countries is lacking. Even where data exist, comparison over time and between nations is difficult. Yet, there are sufficient data to conclude that homelessness across even the most prosperous countries is persistent. In developing countries, it is likely that homelessness has increased throughout the last decade owing to the breakdown of traditional family support systems, continued urbanisation, the effects of structural adjustment programmes, civil wars, and disasters.

56. It is vital to know the scale and nature of homelessness, and the characteristics and size of various categories of homeless people, so that interventions can be effectively targeted. Routine collection of data on homeless people and for their inclusion in censuses is thus useful. Moreover, there is a need for concerted primary research into homelessness to be carried out on a regular basis and initially on the appropriateness of definitions. It is especially important to gather data on homelessness and its causes in transitional and developing countries. Without this research, solutions are unlikely to be effective.

57. Outreach, education, training and health care services for homeless people and street children must be inclusive and relevant to street life and built around their needs. There is a great need to modify the training of professionals who deal with vulnerable people. Homeless people, particularly street children, should be regarded as unutilised but potential assets rather than burdens to society.

58. Shelters provide a valuable survival function in the short term and a locus for outreach and other services aimed at re-integrating the homeless person back into mainstream society. It may be inevitable that shelters will be the first major response to the issues faced by homeless people but they must not be the main or only response.

59. It is vital that efforts are made to ease the paths of homeless people into a sustainable lifestyle anchored in social relationships and a supportive network of welfare services. Health services are required both for prevention and cure. For street children and young people, there is a need to provide basic information about nutrition and hygiene.

60. There is an undoubted need for bridging the gap between how much a poor household or individual can afford to spend on housing and how much minimum housing costs. This may involve reducing the standard of the minimum dwelling, or reducing its cost. or increasing the ability of poor people to pay, or all of these. It is important, however, that the mechanisms used for this do not reduce the efficiency of the housing supply system and housing allowances may be the most effective method.

61. There is a need for a holistic approach towards homelessness through cross-sectoral collaboration. There is an increasing role for voluntary or not-for-profit organisations in promoting problem solving through cooperation across professional fields, public, civil and private spheres of society, etc. It is of particular importance that financial and other resources are allocated to these organisations proportionate to their given tasks and responsibilities.

62. Policies towards homeless people should be inclusive and offer services near the areas where they live. In addition, people with stigmatised illnesses or health conditions may need special treatment in the housing market. The deserving/undeserving dichotomy in homelessness policy should be rejected.

63. Without reasonably paid employment or businesses, people cannot enjoy the necessities of even the simplest lifestyle or develop self-esteem. Programmes that provide work through renovating housing for use as supportive shelter seems to address two problems at the same time. Where groups of homeless people have already developed niche occupations, these should be recognised and subject to the assistance available to other small-scale enterprises.

64. It is important that central governments ensure that decisions made at local level do not result in evictions unless suitable re-housing is in place. There should be better publicity of the international protocols on forced eviction so that potential evictees and their representatives can defend their rights effectively.

65. Better understanding of the causes of homelessness is needed, especially as these differ regionally and between households. Only then can the number of people affected be reduced. The focus should be on poverty alleviation and improving the social environment in which families live.