Wednesday

1st Feb 2023

Opinion

EU must treat homeless as rights-holders, not criminals

  • This gap between EU resources available on the one hand, and the persistence of poverty and homelessness on the other hand, is what makes these figures more than an embarrassment: it raises them to the level of a human-rights crisis (Photo: Nick Fewings)

With a GDP-per-capita above €30,000, the European Union is one of the richest regions of the world, and its member states boast strong social programmes to support job-seekers and low-income families.

Yet, one fifth of the total population – totalling 91.4 million people – are still at risk of poverty or social exclusion, and access to housing remains difficult for many Europeans: at least 700,000 people sleep rough each night in the EU, and according to a Eurostat survey, three-in-100 people say they have already had to live with relatives on a temporary basis while one-in-100 people say they have already lived on the street, in emergency or temporary accommodation or in a place not suitable for housing.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

This gap between the resources available on the one hand, and the persistence of poverty and homelessness on the other hand, is what makes these figures more than an embarrassment: it raises them to the level of a human-rights crisis.

In part due to the Covid-19 crisis, there is now a strong momentum around combating social exclusion in the EU.

The launch of the European Platform on Combating Homelessness at a high level conference organised on 21 June by the European Commission and the Portuguese presidency is part of this effort.

The EU member states will sign a declaration indicating their commitment to tackle homelessness. But commitments are not enough, unless they are monitored and enforceable: this is why the platform should ground its work on a human rights framework.

As parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, all EU member states have already undertaken to prevent and eliminate homelessness; to put an end to forced evictions; and to ensure access to a remedy in case of violations.

In order to discharge this obligation, however, a first and elementary step is first to face the reality: although various recommendations exist at both international and European levels about how to measure homelessness, reliable data are still missing in the EU, making it difficult both to design strategies and to monitor progress.

Governments should not only quantify the phenomenon: as they committed under the Sustainable Development Goals (target 17.18), they should also disaggregate data (by income, gender, ethnicity, age, migratory status, etc.) in order to identify which groups are most at risk and, thus, how to prevent homelessness.

Missing data

The missing data is an obstacle to action: all too often, problems that are not measured remain invisible to policy-makers and are not seen as a priority even to the general public.

A second challenge is that, instead of being treated as rights-holders who should be guaranteed access to remedies, homeless people are still routinely criminalised.

Various human rights instruments prohibit the criminalisation of homeless people: the Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights provide that states should "repeal and reform any laws that criminalise life-sustaining activities in public places, such as sleeping, begging, eating or performing personal hygiene activities", and the Guidelines for the Implementation of the Right to Adequate Housing recommend that states "repeal all laws and measures that criminalize or penalize homeless people or behaviour associated with being homeless, such as sleeping or eating in public spaces".

The European Parliament has also adopted a number of resolutions, most recently in January 2021, asking that member states "put an end to the criminalisation of homeless people and change the discriminatory practices used to prevent homeless people from accessing social services and shelter".

Yet, as a recent judgment of the European Court of Human Rights reminds us, the criminalisation of begging is still common across Europe.

A third challenge, finally, is that victims of homelessness should have access to remedies to challenge the actions that lead to lead to their eviction from their homes and to claim a right to support.

Earlier this year, the European Parliament called on the EU Commission and the member states to "ensure that the right to adequate housing is recognised and enforceable as a fundamental human right through applicable European and national legislative provisions".

Far from being a long-term objective, this calls for immediate action to be taken at domestic level, to move from generous but empty promises about the realisation of the right to housing to making it a reality in people's lives.

The establishment of the European Platform on Combating Homelessness provides a unique opportunity to strike a decisive victory in the battle against extreme poverty and homelessness, one of its most dramatic manifestations. In this battle, the human rights framework is neither a luxury nor an inconvenient restraint: it provides a compass, and an indispensable tool to ensure effectiveness.

Author bio

Balakrishnan Rajagopal is the UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing. Olivier De Schutter is the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights; Birgit Van Hout is the UN Human Rights Regional Representative for Europe.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Feature

Covid-hit homeless find Xmas relief at Brussels food centre

The Kamiano food distribution centre in Brussels is expecting 20 people every half hour on Christmas Day. For many, Kamiano is also more than that - a support system for those made homeless or impoverished.

The EU's social housing crisis

In Hungary, a proposed amendment of the housing law insists municipalities sell their housing units to inhabitants at 10-30 percent of the market price, a decision that would "further deepen the current urban housing crisis and increase existing housing inequalities".

A social Europe needs better housing

EU social and urban policies should be more linked together and involve local authorities, in order to help people find affordable homes.

Brussels urged to act on housing bubbles

Newcomers to the eurozone who are still playing economic catch-up could in the future suffer the same real estate overheating as Spain and Ireland, a new study by Bruegel, a Brussels-based think-tank has warned.

Column

Democracy — is it in crisis or renaissance?

Countries that were once democratising are now moving in the other direction — think of Turkey, Myanmar, Hungary or Tunisia. On the other hand, in autocracies mass mobilisation rarely succeeds in changing political institutions. Think of Belarus, Iran or Algeria.

More money, more problems in EU answer to US green subsidies

Industrial energy-intense sectors, outside Germany and France, will not move to the US. They will go bust, as they cannot compete in a fragmented single market. So to save industry in two member states, we will kill the rest?

Column

Democracy — is it in crisis or renaissance?

Countries that were once democratising are now moving in the other direction — think of Turkey, Myanmar, Hungary or Tunisia. On the other hand, in autocracies mass mobilisation rarely succeeds in changing political institutions. Think of Belarus, Iran or Algeria.

Greece's spy scandal must shake us out of complacency

The director of Amnesty International Greece on the political spying scandal that now threatens to bring down prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Activists and NGO staff work with the constant fear that they are being spied on.

Latest News

  1. Hungary blames conspiracy for EU corruption rating
  2. Democracy — is it in crisis or renaissance?
  3. EU lobby register still riddled with errors
  4. Polish backpedal on windfarms put EU funds at risk
  5. More money, more problems in EU answer to US green subsidies
  6. Study: EU electricity transition sped into high gear in 2022
  7. Russia and China weaponised pandemic to sow distrust, MEPs hear
  8. Frontex to spend €100m on returning migrants this year

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Party of the European LeftJOB ALERT - Seeking a Communications Manager (FT) for our Brussels office!
  2. European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual & Reproductive Rights (EPF)Launch of the EPF Contraception Policy Atlas Europe 2023. 8th February. Register now.
  3. Europan Patent OfficeHydrogen patents for a clean energy future: A global trend analysis of innovation along hydrogen value chains
  4. Forum EuropeConnecting the World from the Skies calls for global cooperation in NTN rollout
  5. EFBWWCouncil issues disappointing position ignoring the threats posed by asbestos
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersLarge Nordic youth delegation at COP15 biodiversity summit in Montreal

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP27: Food systems transformation for climate action
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region and the African Union urge the COP27 to talk about gender equality
  3. Friedrich Naumann Foundation European DialogueGender x Geopolitics: Shaping an Inclusive Foreign Security Policy for Europe
  4. Obama FoundationThe Obama Foundation Opens Applications for its Leaders Program in Europe
  5. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos
  6. European Committee of the RegionsRe-Watch EURegions Week 2022

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us