Do you really want to solve homelessness?


Picture of Bàlint Misetics
Bàlint Misetics

Founder of The City is For All and 2020-2021 European Young Leader (EYL40)

Homelessness is a particular manifestation of poverty. The correspondence between social and spatial inequalities usually ensures that the wealthier segments of our societies do not need to personally witness the predicament of the poorest of their fellow citizens. Homelessness is different: in large cities throughout Europe, residents must routinely encounter the deprivation and disenfranchisement that homelessness entails.

We might optimistically assume that one of the reasons why democratic polities often fail to adequately address social injustices is a lack of awareness. The visibility and consequent undeniability of homelessness could then mean a certain advantage: while one might still need to argue for housing and social policy reforms in order to solve the problem, at least there would be no need to first ‘raise awareness’ about the problem itself.

This exceptional visibility is not a feature of homelessness though, but of only a part of its most extreme form: rough sleeping or street homelessness. The hegemonic social construction of ‘homelessness’ does not capture the variety of experiences of those who lack housing, but instead is usually dominated by the features of a small minority of homeless people: the stereotypical homeless, who live in busy public spaces, whose clothing is ragged, mismatched and dirty, and whose behaviour is disturbing or disturbed.

This visibility of a segment of street homelessness—only one corner of the tip of an iceberg—has such a powerful effect on the public understanding of and attitudes toward ‘the homeless’ that homelessness itself becomes, paradoxically, invisible. The structural roots of homelessness also become invisible as the public discourse becomes fixated on either the inconveniences that ‘homelessness’ creates for the residents or on the specific vulnerabilities of some homeless people, such as mental illness or addiction.

Similar distorting tendencies can be discerned in much of the academic discourse on homelessness. Poverty is, by now, usually understood to be a social problem that can and ought to be explained not through the individual characteristics, shortcomings or vulnerabilities of the poor, but through the characteristics of income and wealth distribution, and the shortcomings of the welfare state, including how it fails to adequately address specific vulnerabilities.

Homelessness is about the lack of housing

The vast majority of people with psychiatric or substance abuse problems are not homeless, were never homeless and will never become homeless – but it is true that these vulnerabilities are more prevalent among those who are homeless. These vulnerabilities might be also higher among those who cannot afford to adequately heat their homes or to spend enough on food. It would still be absurd for an expert to discuss these vulnerabilities as if they were the causes of food or energy poverty, and it would certainly be a preposterous position to argue for more mental health or addiction services for the poor without stressing that the main reason why they cannot heat or eat enough is that, simply, they do not have enough money to do so.

Why is it different with homelessness? Why is it that the inability to purchase something is universally understood to be caused by the lack of monetary resources, but the discrepancy between the price of housing and whatever income homeless people have or can attain is rarely at the focus in the discourse on homelessness? Is it not, ultimately, wealth and income that allow people to be housed, and is it not the lack thereof that explains that certain people are without housing?

Much of what governments and cities usually do about homelessness is not about addressing the structural roots of homelessness, but about decreasing its visibility. This is evidently true of efforts to criminalise homelessness and exclude homeless people from the use of public spaces; it also applies, to a certain extent, to the dominant policy of shelter provision.

The punitive and charitable responses to homelessness might appear as opposite of each other – and this opposition has a certain validity of course, since the provision of soup kitchens and shelters is a more compassionate response than police harassment. But homelessness is about the lack of housing, and you cannot pay your rent with compassion.

Eliminating the need for rough sleeping is a justified policy priority because of its dire consequences on health and life expectancy. Shelters are, however, only capable of transforming one manifestation of homelessness into another.

The question is whether we are willing to commit to the kind of housing and social policy reforms that are necessary to address the root causes of homelessness

If a homelessness policy is exclusively focused on the provision of shelters, it is a recipe for failure. Logically, decreasing homelessness is possible only if the number of people who exit homelessness exceeds the number of those who lose their homes. It necessitates prevention and increasing the access of homeless people to affordable housing. The provision of shelters does neither.

A minimalist policy approach, one that focuses only on emergency responses, is also philosophically indefensible, as it entails that we accept that certain segments of our society are unworthy of housing. We might try to justify this abandonment by arguing that those who remain homeless are not unworthy, but ‘unable’ to be housed. But this would be an excuse, not a justification.

An excuse that is tenable only if we disregard the most robustly researched, most convincing evidence-based policy on homelessness: the housing first model, which provides immediate access to permanently affordable housing to an especially vulnerable subgroup of homeless people, those with psychiatric disabilities and co-occurring addiction disorders – who are conventionally deemed to be the least ‘housing ready’ within the framework of traditional services.

Homeless people are homeless because they cannot afford to be housed. Decreasing homelessness, therefore, necessitates one of the following two things. We must either increase the income of those who are homeless or threatened with homelessness, or we must increase the provision of affordable housing – affordable to even those with very low incomes.

For some, the gap between income and the cost of housing constitutes the only obstacle to exiting homelessness. Other formerly homeless people would also need access to services addressing their mental illness, addiction or unemployment – as do a lot of other residents. Affordable housing is a necessary, even if not always sufficient, solution to homelessness.

There is strong research evidence in favour of such a housing turn in homelessness policies. The question is not whether homelessness can be solved. We fail to solve homeless not because it is an ‘intractable’ social problem. The question is whether we are willing to commit to the kind of housing and social policy reforms that are necessary to address the root causes of homelessness and the egalitarian redistribution that such reforms entail.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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