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Homelessness post-Covid19 can end with strong social housing policies and partnerships

A mission that takes guts at all levels to push for new housing approaches

Brussels, 30 June 2021 | Published in Social, Future of the EU & Housing

On the eve of the launch of the EU Platform on Combating Homelessness, the Housing Solution Platform led by Housing Europe, FEANTSA and Fondation Abbé Pierre brought together policymakers, social and affordable housing providers, and experts in tackling homelessness to raise the discussion on how to strengthen the significant role of social housing providers at local, national and European level. Ending homelessness requires strong action and cooperation between all relevant actors and this message really came through on 18th June.

We all know that the Coronavirus pandemic has clearly demonstrated the importance of securing adequate and affordable housing for all.  FEANTSA had already reported an increase in the number of homeless people before the hit of COVID with about 700,000 people sleeping rough every night. Another worrying trend has shown more young people and families falling into homelessness.

Political actions have been taken. In 2020, the European Parliament voted in favour of the “Access to decent and affordable housing for all’ own-initiative report by Dutch MEP Kim van Sparrentak from the Greens. By doing this, MEPs called on the European Commission to work on eradicating homelessness by 2030, including data collection, monitoring of policy progress and promotion of best practices, addressing Principle 19 of the Pillar of Social Rights. Lastly, on 21st June, the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU, the EU institutions and national ministers launched the EU Platform on Combatting Homelessness in Lisbon. Seeing this ambition black on white reassured Housing Europe that the EU wants to build back a better, fair society but for the Platform to succeed, we would need a real, fundamental change in the EU approach to housing. “We believe that ending homelessness requires strong action and cooperation between all  involved actors. In this context, social housing plays a key role in both tackling and preventing homelessness“,  Alice Pittini,  the Research Director of Housing Europe who also moderated the session said.

MEP Cindy Franssen from the European People’s Party (EPP, Belgium) clearly recognised that social housing should be a key partner in the fight against this phenomenon and called for a holistic view on housing policy. “Social housing providers deliver a wide range of services, together with local authorities, they can offer supporting solutions, taking part in Housing First and solving health, educational problems, helping people to get back on track,'' she said. Franssen also pointed out that 70% more people have been living on the streets compared to ten years ago, and that this  number has grown during the COVID crisis due to uncertainties and financial difficulties. “The COVID crisis has shown that homelessness is a public health issue. Shelters are often inadequate and unsafe places to live in. Then, it is the time to promote housing, housing-led first approaches to homelessness and avoid going back to the old normal”, Cindy Franssen explained.

After coming to a realisation that the number of homeless people in France has doubled since 2012, Fondation Abbé Pierre has insisted that the French government launches a survey to precisely determine the exact number of homeless people in France by 2025. Abbé Pierre’s Sarah Coupechoux pointed out that the Fondation has noticed first political desires in France to change the way it tackles homelessness. France is also the only EU country where there is an enforceable right to housing. Since 2010, the government has begun to change the policy and created a Housing First model where the housing sector and health services work in close partnership. “What we still need in France, is some financial and human resources to bring the transformation of the system. We need to ask the EU to give sufficient funds to implement practices and make change”, Sarah Coupechoux added. 

Maria Montes Miguel,Vice president of the Spanish Federation of Public Housing (AVS), shed light on the role of the social housing sector in Spain and stressed that there are different models of collaboration between social housing sectors with municipalities and NGOs. A model that works to AVS is a process in which a social housing provider at regional or local level makes dwellings available for homeless people, NGOs and municipalities identify and select homeless people to become tenants, then, NGOs contracted by the municipality assist people once they have been provided with a home and the final step is the signature of a contract with the social housing provider where the new tenants also has rights and commitments towards the NGO. She considered this close collaboration between social housing providers, municipalities, NGOs and homeless people as a significant revolution mainly due to the fact that the social housing providers make buildings available to homeless people, municipalities know the profile of citizens, and the NGOs are in contact with municipalities and can provide social support to them. Maria Montes said:“The Housing First Programme is included in the housing policy; it is not a temporary programme, it doesn’t end, because people are tenants, and they can be tenants of the public dwelling for the rest of their lives”.

Kjell Larsson, the President of FEANTSA and the Swedish Association of City Mission, gave the example of Housing First in Sweden and the role of public housing in the specific example of Gothenburg. Increase in the number of homeless people in Sweden has led to a call for urgent meetings in 2003, and the kick-start of the  work on a Housing First Programme in a vulnerable area in Gothenburg. In 2008, the project was permanently completed and gradually became a Housing First unit. When it comes to public housing in Sweden, today, all residents' leases are subject to regulations aimed at establishing “fair rents”, and rents are to be determined by a ‘utility value’. Kjell mentioned that there is a very strong Swedish Union of Tenants - one of the largest organisations in Sweden including 600,000 members - which negotiates the rental levels with public and private housing sectors. 

Bjorn Mallants, Director of the Association of Flemish Social Housing Companies (VVH) in Belgium stressed that the cost of housing is increasing everywhere in the EU while the economic growth is not following with the same speed, which then leads to the problem of affordability. High housing prices have had a direct impact on homelessness as people risk being evicted from their home,  facing the risk of becoming homeless, and the other way around, homeless people risk choosing inadequate housing with  rents that are way too high. Based on that, he highlighted the importance of the Housing First Programme which is mainly targeting social housing, as not-for-profit providers go the extra mile. To prevent homelessness from the start, Bjorn Mallants called for a considerable increase of the social housing stock, adequate and enough welfare support to be able to face an increasing challenge. Pointing out to the Global Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, he expressed that four of these goals are the backbone of the manifesto that they wrote back in 2019 for the Flemish elections. 

Just a few days ahead of the launch of the EU Platform, Katarina Ivanković Knežević, Director at European Commission’s DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion highlighted the role of the social housing sector in it.  By including homelessness in more key pieces of legislation, the EU official sees  the EU Platform as a  place where also other EU initiatives tackling homelessness could be discussed, such as the EU Child Guarantee, the Strategy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Affordable Housing Initiative, and the fight against energy poverty under the Renovation Wave. Katarina Ivanković Knežević also added that the Platform can be a new motion that triggers bigger political commitment at all levels, giving the issue a fair chance to be on the agenda more than ever before.

Bringing the event towards an end, Sorcha Edwards, the Secretary-General of Housing Europe reminded the importance of forging partnerships. “Before the pandemic, the housing crisis was already brewing and now, we have come to a turning point where we need to boost the supply of social housing to help tackle the extreme housing inequalities in our society. It is going to take guts at all levels to push for new housing approaches that put dignity at the centre. Housing First policies need to be embedded into a smart sustainable integrated housing policy,” she said.

Watch the conference, HERE.