At least 150 million people are homeless, the UN estimates – more than the combined populations of the UK and France.
Homeless people, in affluent and less affluent countries alike, describe being abandoned by governments on the one hand and overpoliced on the other.
The US – the world’s wealthiest country – has more than half a million people living in homelessness, most of them African American. Almost half live in one of the wealthiest US states, California. The UK, with one of the world’s largest economies, has 280,000 homeless people in England alone.
Homelessness at today’s scale has been decades in the making, even if it took a global pandemic to expose it as a possible death sentence. But there are also new opportunities to solve it.
Homeless people want their governments to treat them like human beings, and to provide access to secure, decent housing, as they have committed to do under international human rights law and the sustainable development goals.
To mark Human Rights Day today (10 December), 30 organisations from 20 different countries have launched Global Homelessness Action, collecting video testimonies from people living in homelessness, to claim their rights in their own words.
From street corners, shelters, encampments and subway stations in every region of the world, people are demanding that their governments take urgent measures to eliminate homelessness.
Governments are increasingly getting on board. The European parliament, for instance, has adopted a resolution underlining that access to housing is a fundamental human right for all people, and is calling for the EU and its member states to end homelessness by 2030. Similarly, a senator in Connecticut will be putting forward legislation in 2021 that recognises the human rights to housing as a precursor to ending homelessness, something the government of Canada also did a year ago.
Legislating the right to housing is an important step, but only the first one. People living in homelessness in the midst of a pandemic need urgent, practical action, via programmes such as Housing First, which the European parliament has called on all member states to adopt as the primary response to homelessness.
Housing First is based on the principle that everyone requires decent housing. It provides housing directly to people experiencing homeless with no preconditions. People do not need to be sober, employed or free of health challenges in order to access housing. Simply by virtue of being human, people who lack housing should be provided with it.
Housing First is not a magic trick. It requires governments to make available a sufficient supply of truly affordable social housing. Temporary accommodation in shelters and hostels is justified only as an emergency measure, not a sustainable solution.
Studies have demonstrated the considerable savings to governments when they choose to house people rather than maintain them in situations of homelessness. Housing First in Finland is part of a broader strategy to prevent homelessness by tackling some of its structural causes.
Finland’s approach also recognises that homelessness is of national significance, and that it can be eliminated with political will and by recognising homeless people as ordinary members of society, with full human rights. In the words of George Orwell: “Either we all live in a decent world, or nobody does.”
Leilani Farha is global director of The Shift and former UN special rapporteur on the right to housing (2014-2020). Juha Kaakinen is chief executive of Y-Foundation, an experienced developer of Housing First and affordable social housing