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close this bookStrategies to Combat Homelessness (HABITAT, 2000, 228 p.)
close this folderX. Conclusions and proposals for combating homelessness
View the documentX.A. Conclusions
View the documentX.B. Proposals for action
View the documentX.C. Directions for further research

X.A. Conclusions

It is evident that the circumstances that lead individuals and households into homelessness are increasingly prevalent world-wide and there is no easing in the task of re-integrating homeless people into mainstream society. In high-income industrial countries, the poverty and isolation of homeless people are at odds with the wealth and prosperity of society as a whole. In developing countries, rapid urbanisation, the urbanisation of poverty, structural adjustment programmes, some disintegration of traditional family links, poor life chances in rural areas, and many other stresses, are compounding to introduce homelessness for the first time, particularly among young people.

The rights-based approach to housing highlights the need to tackle homelessness. Not to do so would be a direct denial of basic human rights and contrary to many obligations accepted by states through their ratification of many international legal instruments as well as the GSS, Agenda 21, and the Habitat Agenda.

Unfortunately, the definition of homelessness is by no means straightforward and it can be categorised by many different aspects such as the problems homeless people are experiencing, the attitude of the people involved, and their potential. Furthermore, it is helpful to visualise a continuum as well as discrete categories.

This report argues that, when dealing with high-income industrial countries, it is inappropriate to include only those included in a narrow definition of homelessness. Those who are potentially, imminently, latently, or incipiently homeless through poor tenure security, unsupportive family circumstances, or poor physical conditions and lack of servicing, should also be included. Thus, a broader definition of homelessness is required in these countries.

In developing countries, however, the inclusion of poor tenure or housing conditions in the definition would be inappropriate. Such very large proportions of the population routinely endure them that they do not generate that detachment from society nor represent the 'unique distress and urgent need' (FEANTSA, 1999) facing those with much-below-average housing security and/or quality of shelter for their society. Where the threshold comes must probably be decided in the context of each country or region. Most would probably include people living on streets (even with rudimentary shelter and a home life constructed there), those under bridges, on railway lines, in discarded pipes, etc. Whether they would include those in the poorer types of squatter shelters, or those living on land liable to flooding, land-slip, and other hazards (and at what level of hazard) should be dealt with nationally or regionally.

This removal of generally poor housing from the definition of homeless-ness is reasonable in this report, as it is the focus of most of the routine work of UNCHS (Habitat). The separation of acute lack of housing from that which may be routine seems sensible. This reduces the constituency addressed in this report from about half of humankind to somewhere above 100 million people.

Data on numbers and characteristics of homeless people varies greatly between and within regions, often depending on whether there are services to cater for them in any way. This gives rise to the service-statistics-paradox in which the countries that try hardest to provide services seem to have the highest levels of homelessness. Homeless people are universally characterised by poverty. Some live within household groups others live alone; women are a minority (at least in industrial countries) - although the number of homeless women may be underestimated due to the prevalence of concealed homeless-ness among women - and an increasing proportion are young. Many homeless people have chemical dependencies and problems with alcohol. They are more likely to have mental illness and some physical ailments, such as sexually transmitted diseases, than the population at large. The reduction in hospitalisation of people with these problems is thought to have exacerbated the homelessness problem. Ethnic minorities and migrants seem to be over-represented in the homeless population.

Some of the above characteristics are felt to be causal factors in people becoming homeless. However, many systemic issues have almost certainly boosted the homeless population. These include a declining housing provision, cuts in social welfare systems, the breakdown of families, increasingly uncertain employment markets and increases in extreme poverty. There are also events that lead directly to homelessness, especially evictions from rental property or foreclosure of owned, forced eviction of whole neighbourhoods, and natural or human-made disasters. It is argued that it is more helpful to tackle the systemic issues rather than focusing on the individuals' shortcomings as this latter tends to lead to unhelpful (and almost certainly inaccurate) dichotomies such as deserving versus undeserving.

There is a large number of children and young people, in many countries, who are classified together as street children but seem to be very varied in their characteristics and behaviour. To the major distinction between children in the street and children of the street, can be added children of street families and those who are completely abandoned by the adult world. The first and third tend to have contact with adult relatives and may sleep with their families. On the other hand, children of the street and those who have been abandoned make their life and relationships entirely in the public realm. While the causes may be social in high-income industrial countries, especially with respect to violence and abuse in the home, poverty tends to be the driving force in developing countries. Many street children regard their state as temporary and look forward to fitting back into mainstream society and getting a job.

Current initiatives in dealing with homelessness are moving away from the dichotomous deserving/undeserving, housed/homeless, structural/agency, approaches to responses that recognise the differing needs of people in different places on the home to homeless continuum. There is a need to recognise that conventional housing strategies may not touch the problem of homelessness. This may be especially relevant in developing countries where the low-income housing policies tend to be based on sites and services and other self-help approaches to building single household dwellings.

Interventions for and with homeless people range from ensuring their day-to-day survival through shelters, through the provision of social services to tackle their personal needs, to providing supportive housing. The last has provided many opportunities for employment for homeless people along the way. Initiatives such as street papers, and the use of information technology to increase efficiency in finding shelter places, demonstrate the breadth of interventions underway. Emergency and longer-term shelters have an on-going role in establishing a point of contact with most homeless people and a place from where other interventions can operate. They will probably continue to be the point of entry into the realm of helping homeless people as such interventions start up in developing countries.

Interventions aimed at street children vary from clandestine murder to appropriate skills training. It is very important to prevent children's coming on to the street in the first place by improving the lifechances of poor households, especially women. In addition, realistic portrayals of life on the streets in the media are likely to reduce its attractiveness viz a viz the home. As with work among homeless adults, it is important that agencies collaborate and ensure that they are not taking with one hand while giving with the other through incompatible policies. It is important that outreach and other interventions are street-friendly, especially in education aimed at gathering skills and preventing HIV/AIDS infection.

The end of the twentieth century was a time when Governments withdrew from large-scale provision of subsidised public housing and from public services in general. As housing is increasingly seen as a private good, public intervention is becoming limited to specially targeted cases. The context of enablement propounded in the GSS and Habitat Agenda has set policy contexts within which countries should operate but many have so far failed to replace their narrow subsidised public housing efforts with effective wide-ranging enablement strategies. Following the general failure of traditional policies to move people from homelessness into permanent housing, self-sufficiency and independent living, new approaches are needed. One of the most important of these has been strengthening inter-agency partnerships. It is recognised that homeless people need emergency assistance to bring them back into mainstream society and an appropriate housing and social infrastructure to prevent their falling into the state of homelessness. This can be conceived as a two-pronged attack or, perhaps more helpfully, a 'continuum of care'. Stages on the continuum typically involve emergency palliative treatment, transitional rehabilitation, and permanent housing with support services.

At the same time, there seems to be a shift in service delivery towards a more individual oriented approach aiming at reintegration and active participation of homeless individuals. There appears, however, to be a potential conflict between the ideas of partnership and consensus among professional service providers, on the one hand, and the idea of individually targeted and tailored services, on the other. In the 'staircase system', developed in some Western European countries, it is demonstrated that shared problem definitions and integrated courses of action (housing and support) may be, but are not always, profitable from the perspective of homeless individuals. Neither do operational responses work effectively yet in accordance with the empowerment and reintegration philosophy embraced in national and international policy declarations (FEANTSA, 1999).

X.B. Proposals for action

"The necessary long-term response to homelessness and poverty is both apparent and complex. We need to provide more decent opportunities for work, job training that leads somewhere, necessary social services, better education, and affordable housing - and do all of this as components of comprehensive community planning and economic development. Admittedly, achieving this will not be easy, nor will it be done painlessly or in short order. While we may lack all the resources to solve the problem right away, we know to build upon what has been learned" (USA, 1994:84).

This report has addressed homelessness and strategies to combat homelessness in as global a sense as has been possible. It has described general trends in homelessness levels and policy approaches by referring to national developments and experiences. Inevitably, Europe and North America have been extensively referred to, largely because of the comparatively plentiful information flowing from them. In contrast, developing countries are represented more sparingly as there is little literature. Many simply do not recognise homelessness and, therefore, have no policy on homelessness!

X.B.1. Better data

If the homelessness problem is to be addressed, it is vital to know its scale and nature. It is also necessary to know the characteristics and size of various categories of homeless people so that interventions can be effectively targeted. Gender- and age-disaggregated data are of particular importance (United Nations, 1995b). Data problems have been a recurrent issue in this report, owing to differing definitions and undeveloped reporting mechanisms. Credible data for many countries is lacking and even where data do exist, comparison over time and between nations is difficult.

So important is enumeration, and the recognition of individuals brought about through their registration, that Mahila Milan in Mumbai has recently completed a second enumeration of pavement dwellers. Through the enumeration process, the municipality in Mumbai has recognised pavement dwellers as eligible for rehabilitation along with slum dwellers. Before, they were completely invisible in policy.83 Routine collection of data on homeless people and their inclusion in censuses are thus required.

83. Citywatch: India, 6, March, 1998.

In developing countries, data are poor and they suffer from undercounting effects of the service-statistics-paradox.84 However, it is likely that homelessness has increased through the last decade owing to the breakdown of traditional family support systems, continued urbanisation, the effects of structural adjustment programmes, civil wars, and disasters.

84. In this case, undercounting probably takes place as there is no service being offered.

X.B.2. Prevention

A better understanding of the factors that lead to homelessness is needed, especially as these differ regionally and between households undergoing different sets of pressures. Only then can the number of people affected be reduced. This is likely to become more serious as the number of countries being affected by, and acknowledging the presence of homelessness grows.

It is vital that international and national action focuses on the reducing the incidence of circumstance that lead to homelessness, especially to children's leaving home. These must focus on poverty alleviation and improving the social environment in which families live. One element in this is to alert the vulnerable parts of the community to the problems and abuses that homeless people and street children face so that they avoid the circumstances that would lead to their youngsters leaving home. The issue of unequal property inheritance rights in many countries also requires urgent attention, to ensure a reduction in the number of women and girls loosing their homes upon the death of their husbands or fathers. Unless these issues are addressed quickly, it is likely that countries without a homeless population will develop one over the next decade.

When governments become more decentralised, it is important that central governments ensure that decisions made at the local level do not result in evictions unless suitable re-housing is in place. There should be better publicity of the international instruments on forced eviction so that potential evictees and their representatives can defend their rights effectively. The documentation efforts of international NGOs - such as the Habitat International Coalition - should continue to put pressure on culpable agencies. Appropriate (and as long as possible) notice should be given in cases where evictions have to be carried out.

In the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, it is important to solve the problem of the efficiency of the foreclosure process. On the one hand it is clear that without the threat of foreclosure and eviction the payment expectation of the population will remain low. On the other hand, however, without the introduction of carefully designed social safety net systems, the application of very hard eviction procedures will probably lead to unacceptably high levels of evictions. The evictees would then be thrown on state assistance for homeless shelters for the parents, state orphanage for the children and the indirect costs arising from poor educational achievement, etc. These are likely to amount to much higher sums than keeping the households in their homes. Eastern and Central European countries need help from Western Europe to establish efficiently functioning housing markets. They also need assistance in establishing reliable and integrated systems of prevention, services for homeless people and real chances for reintegration (FEANTSA, 1999).

X.B.3. Outreach

Outreach to homeless people and street children should be grounded in the culture of the streets. Education and training that start from the client's situation and experience are vital to enhance life chances (Leite and Esteves, 1991). In the same way, health care services, especially those of a preventative nature, must be inclusive and relevant to street life (Bond, 1992). This is often not the case and homeless people are denied basic care because it is ill adapted to their circumstances. It is essential to recognise the short time horizons that follow from street life and to gear the message away from long-term welfare towards day to day survival.

Activities for homeless people and street children should be built around their needs rather than the negative and traditional perspective of mainstream people. Street facilitators should build rapport and mutual trust, and maintain a respectful attitude toward the needs expressed by the homeless adult or street child so that each can participate in defining the programme's actions.

There is a great need to modify the training of professionals dealing with vulnerable people, especially those already homeless. As de Oliveira and others (1992: 175) argue, "prevailing stereotypes, negative labelling and blaming the victim are part of the problem ". Homeless people, particularly street children, should be seen as unutilised but potential assets rather than burdens to society. It is important for professionals to assist them to fulfil their aspirations rather than simply dealing with them as if their future, like their present, is on the street. As Gray and Bernstein (1994) point out, involvement of trainee social workers with street people stimulates their thinking, especially on how to empower homeless people without getting in their way. Social workers should direct their efforts to improving the autonomy and self-direction of homeless people rather than regarding their work as a social safety net within an unacceptable status quo. Autonomy can be increased by reducing the burden of bureaucracy over their livelihoods (e.g., trading licences), changing public opinion away from the 'blot on the landscape' mindset, and improving access to non-market housing.

X.B.4. Emergency shelters and survival strategies

Shelters are the most basic form of accommodation and assistance provided for homeless people. They are the knee-jerk reaction to the situation of people lacking shelter. They provide a valuable survival function in the short term and a locus for outreach and other services aimed at reintegrating the homeless person back into mainstream society. High-income industrial countries have had them for many years, countries with economies in transition are now providing them, and a few developing countries also have them, notably India. 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. 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 whether provided by the family structure or formal agencies.

Health services are required both in preventive services (immunisations, iodisation of salt, family planning and safe sex) and in curative services (especially against tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS) (Ochola and others, 1999).

For street children and young people, there is a need to provide basic information about nutrition and hygiene that are routinely passed on in family life.

X.B.5. Permanent housing: Improved affordability

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. In many high-income industrial countries, unmet priority needs for assistance are frequent and often involve single people and families with children. A stream of people living in poverty who are precariously housed feeds the cohort of homeless persons on the streets and in the shelters. Long-term efforts to reduce and prevent homelessness must include measures that effectively reduce the probability of becoming homeless in the first place (USA, 1994).

This may involve reducing the standard of the minimum dwelling, 85 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. In the past, rent control was tried in many countries and it has almost universally proved damaging to housing supply (Malpezzi and Ball, 1991). Subsidies have also been applied with a broad brush and have proved to be too expensive for general application over a long period, except in a few fortunate places such as Singapore and some of the Nordic countries (at least for a couple of decades). They have led to rationing through inadequate supply, non-progressive income redistribution through poor targeting, and distortions in housing markets through reducing the value of housing goods below the supply price. However well targeted subsidies are, they tend to be applied to the dwelling rather than to the household or person in poverty.

85. This is especially so in developing countries where building standards generate housing that is too costly for most people.

Thus, improving the ability of poor people to afford housing is probably both more effective and less risky than applying subsidies. Housing allowances that reduce as incomes rise, and disappear altogether at fairly low but manageable incomes, may be the most effective method of ensuring that more of the very poorest people in society are housed. These may be issued as handouts, through social security systems, or as negative income tax. However, their distribution to people employed in the informal sector, or in self-employment, may be extremely difficult. It may be possible to work through groups such as rag pickers' organisations or rickshaw pullers' unions. Alternatively, NGOs and non-profit-making organisations such as churches may be useful agents.

X.B.6. Integrated services and better co-ordination

There is a need for a holistic approach towards homelessness. At one level, it is important to feed and care for people who have nowhere to call home. They need to be kept alive in cold climates, provided with food, clothing, medication and care. At the same time, needle exchange, condoms and counselling may be able to reduce the death rate from hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, alcohol and drug abuse. This 'fire-fighting' function is important, saves lives, and can lead to reintegration if well done.

However, it is not an answer to the systemic causes of homelessness and is unlikely to lead homeless people back into mainstream society. For that, homelessness strategies are needed that are part of a comprehensive palette of policies dealing with reducing unemployment and social exclusion, alleviating poverty, ensuring adequate wages, housing the poor, health and disease awareness, and the reduction of substance abuse. While remembering the lessons from recent scholarship (chapter VII above) that chipping away at the problem may be more effective than a broad master plan approach, co-ordination and cross-sectoral collaboration are important.

As Epstein (1996) points out, it is quite possible for one arm of the state to be promoting children's rights while another (probably the education ministry) ignores the needs of the poorest echelons by making schools inaccessible and/or irrelevant to the street children. Similarly, one ministry might be trying to place homeless people in supportive housing while another is making it impossible for private landlords to provide low cost tenancies (e.g., through rent control). Thus, a cross-sectoral approach is essential if the structural elements in the causes of homelessness are to be removed.

There is an increasing role for voluntary or non-profit organisations in promoting problem solving through co-operation across professional fields, public, civil and private spheres of society. Under the new modes of public policy, it is of particular importance that financial and other resources are allocated to these organisations proportionate to their given tasks and responsibilities (FEANTSA, 1999).

X.B.7. Inclusiveness

Fighting discrimination is a necessary part of preventing homelessness in many countries. In the United States of America, the 'Federal Fair Housing Act' prohibits discrimination in access to housing on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex, familial status, national origin and handicap. The 'Americans with Disabilities Act' and the 'Rehabilitation Act' of 1973 prohibit discrimination based on real or perceived disabilities (which include mental impairment, such as mental illness and mental retardation, as disabilities).

People who have a history of alcohol and drug abuse from discrimination as long as they do not currently use illegal substances are also protected from discrimination in housing (USA, 1994). However, discrimination still occurs, especially in 'not-in-my-back-yard' reactions to group housing for people who are mentally ill, mentally retarded, or former substance abusers. The Federal Government in the United States of America is committed to challenging cities that refuse to permit group homes, or that selectively enforce zoning restrictions to collude with residents in excluding such homes (USA, 1994).

The message of inclusiveness is reinforced by Bibars (1998), in the context of developing countries. He asserts that the street - the children's main habitat - should be the main setting for assistance to street children. It is important not to institutionalise or alienate the homeless child or adult from his/her environment. That implies that services should be offered near the areas where they live. In addition, people with stigmatised illnesses or health conditions may need special treatment in the housing market.

"Housing is critical for people infected with tuberculosis (TB), HIV/AIDS, or both.... In addition, some persons infected with HIV may face an increased and unnecessary risk of TB infection as a result of unsafe living conditions.... High priority must be given to the prevention and control of TB among homeless people by detection, evaluation, and follow-up services to those homeless people with current symptoms of active TB" (USA, 1994:81).

Ensuring that they are adequately housed is, thus, a fundamental component in the continuum of care for this population. Governments that can afford to would do well to emulate the United States of America with the use of short-term rental payments when people with HIV/AIDS and/or tuberculoses are threatened with homelessness. This also reduces their risk of exposure to diseases implied in using emergency communal facilities. This is also a group for whom subsidised rent programmes are suitable (thorough tenant-based vouchers), and for whom supportive services that focus on preventing homelessness should be instituted (USA, 1994).

The deserving/undeserving dichotomy in homelessness policies should be rejected. It should be recognised that all homelessness is a breach of human rights and should be addressed with equal vigour. There is also a need to recognise the problems migrants face in many societies, as they are over-represented among homeless people and street children. Thus, inclusive housing strategies with migrants in mind could radically affect the scale of the homeless population.

X.B.8. Employment, enterprise and community development

For an increasing number of people in the world, obtaining and maintaining work is the major issue in establishing and sustaining life. Without reasonably paid employment or businesses, they cannot enjoy the necessities of food, shelter, services and all other components of even the simplest lifestyle.

In efforts to generate work, it is important that tasks are seen to be useful and not just part of make-work schemes. The ecological surveys conducted in rural Oregon and street cleaning in downtown areas in United States of America and Canada are cases in point. There also seems to be a great deal to gain in working to improve their own and other homeless people's lot. Thus, programmes that provide work through renovating housing for use as supportive shelter seems to address two problems at the same time. As self-esteem can be a problem for homeless people, it is essential that they do not feel patronised by the agencies that are trying to help them.

Where groups of homeless people have already developed niche occupations, it would be helpful to recognise their contribution and subject them to the assistance available to other small-scale enterprises. Typical occupations are garbage collection and recycling, car cleaning and car parking security.

Self-help can also be effective in providing a service at an economical price and building a sense of belonging. Examples where housing is restored or provided as part of work training and experience serve to demonstrate the value of this approach. Many shelters and short-stay accommodations use homeless people in caretaker roles.

Evidence has shown that formerly homeless people can play a role with assistance for current homeless people. There are many examples where counselling and help to kick drug and drinking habits have been effectively provided by the formerly addicted. This can be extended to skills training, both as economic skills for earning a living and also life-skills for dealing with agencies and bureaucracy, coping with the work environment, and remaking relationships in a stable home environment.

X.C. Directions for further research

The lack of relevant and reliable data on homelessness indicates low political priority and hampers systematic learning from the experiences of different approaches to combat homelessness. In order to obtain a comprehensive and up-to-date overview on homelessness, there is a need for concerted primary research to be carried out on a regular basis. Research networks such as the European Observatory on Homelessness, set up by FEANTSA in 1991, may play a crucial role in this endeavour. The compilation of comprehensive data at national and regional levels would require that agreement be reached on a common definition or a bundle of related definitions for homelessness (FEANTSA, 1999). To this end, it is proposed that UNCHS (Habitat) should consult widely on the appropriateness of definitions of homelessness used in this report to the different regions and countries of the world. The initiation of the United Nations Housing Rights Programme - to be implemented jointly by UNCHS (Habitat) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights - can contribute to an increased focus on homelessness and may strengthen the search for improved policies and measures.

It is especially important to gather data on homelessness in transitional and developing countries. FEANTSA are beginning to co-ordinate the former within Eastern and Central Europe. However, little is known about the causes, nature and extent of homelessness, especially among adults, in developing countries. Without this research, solutions are unlikely to be forthcoming or, where they are, are unlikely to be effective.

In high-income industrial countries, where there tends to be a well-developed system of social security in place, resources devoted to addressing homelessness may be better spent if more understanding can be gained. Because of the complexity involved, responses to individuals' bundles of needs may not necessarily form effective methods of intervention. Research could well be applied to the effectiveness of tailoring multi-sectoral interventions to individuals rather than to categories of homeless people.

In high-income industrial countries, research on street children's families and on what keeps children at home in difficult circumstances would be very useful. In addition, there is a great need to understand the problems faced by the growing cohorts of orphans following genocides, in places like Rwanda, and because of HIV/AIDS. This is particularly urgent where there is a high incidence of HIV among them as it adds the 'not-in-my-back-yard' dimension to possible solutions.