In 2014, Carlos was a swimming teacher in London. He had spent his entire adult life in work, able to pay his rent and help support his young son. When he was told the school he worked at was due to close, he lost his job. Two months of sanctions to his benefits tipped him over the edge. Carlos’ landlord evicted him and, out of money, he had nowhere to turn but the streets. Carlos approached the homelessness charity Crisis for help. He told them how the experience of sleeping rough had left him ‘rock bottom’. It is only with the help of Crisis that he was able to start rebuilding his life.
As real estate values soar, cities like London have become battle grounds in the fight for affordable housing. Buying a house now costs Londoners eleven times their median annual salary. It was just four times annual earnings in the mid-1990s. As a result private rents have soared, helping explain why homeless applications in London have increased by 25% since 2010. Current estimates suggest 940 people are sleeping rough in London per night, which is more than double the amount seen in 2010.
Worrying statistics like these are now a daily feature of headlines, not just in the UK, but worldwide. The issue has gained so much traction that the Sustainable Development Goals, an agenda for global development created by the United Nations’ (UN) member states, aim “to ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing” by 2030. Meanwhile, Leilani Farha, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Housing, has called for “a global campaign to eliminate homelessness by 2030.”
Behind such calls for action are the individual lives of people like Carlos and the question of how these broad policy goals can be realised in practice.
The right to housing
Here at the Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF), we have been working with the Special Rapporteur to suggest practical solutions and effective practices in addressing homelessness. We support many of the recommendations she sets out in her recent report to the Human Rights Council. These include recommendations that countries develop rights-based homelessness strategies, strengthening of legal remedies where rights are violated, and improving our systems for measurement and data collection.
"Homelessness is fundamentally a violation of rights, so, when understood this way, priorities, policies and decision making shifts,” Farha recently told BSHF in an email. “Decisions would be weighed against international human rights obligations and basic rights such as the right to housing or an adequate standard of living. Government laws or programs that don't fulfil human rights requirements simply wouldn’t be developed. It would transform the way a government considers housing policy.”
But how do we achieve this radical change, so that homelessness is seen and dealt with as a rights violation? If governments are central to creating a rights-based framework, what does an exemplary government look like? And what should be done where governments are failing to preserve those rights and failing to tackle homelessness?
When governments commit to eliminating homelessness, and civil society backs them to do this, remarkable progress can be made. For example, in 1987 there were over 18,000 homeless people in Finland. This number included people living on the street or in temporary accommodation, those temporarily living with friends or family, those in residential care and families. By 2014 that figure was less than 8,000. Those living on the street or in emergency shelters now number less than 1,000.
Finland has embraced the vision of ending homelessness, enshrining a right to housing in its constitution in 1995, and committed to Article 31 of the European Social Charter. This includes a pledge to “prevent and reduce homelessness with a view to its gradual elimination.” Just as importantly, it put in place well-resourced strategies to achieve this. Its PAAVO I programme aimed at halving long-term homelessness between 2008 and 2011.
The PAAVO I programme made funding available for the acquisition of existing housing and to develop new housing specifically for homeless people. Civil society organisations like the Y-Foundation, a World Habitat Award winner and social enterprise, specialize in providing housing for the homeless. They have used government funding to buy up private properties and to build new social housing, where those experiencing homelessness can get long term leases. This Housing First approach, which involves providing permanent housing as a first step, after which support is given to help people rebuild their lives, has proved remarkably effective.
Getting governments to act
But not every government approaches homelessness with the same verve and persistence as Finland. What can be done in countries which are sceptical about housing rights or refuse to tackle the problem? We know that when civil society mobilises, pressure can be brought to bear on governments, creating a sense of urgency and demonstrating that homelessness can be reduced.
The 100,000 Homes campaign in the United States was a movement of 186 communities trying to house 100,000 of the most vulnerable people sleeping on their streets. In 2014 the participating communities achieved this objective. They applied new approaches to identify who was sleeping on their streets, what vulnerabilities they had and prioritising those most in need. Following this, they sought to re-target their existing housing resources, draw in new housing supply and to increase the speed at which people were housed. A significant principle of the campaign was to get people into permanent housing as fast as possible and to target the most vulnerable.
The US federal government initially rejected proposals to support the campaign. However, as more communities gathered data and showed this could be used to quickly house people, other communities drew inspiration from their success and joined the movement. As a result, in the final two years of the campaign, the US Federal government began to provide financial support.
Realising the right to housing
To make the right to housing more than just a concept, people must promote, embed and enforce such rights. This is not just about protest; it is also about civil society finding workable remedies to economic issues, legal gaps and measurement inadequacies. Movements focused on practical change can have direct effects, but can also show governments a way forward and the value of investing their resources.
After all, this is not an abstract discussion. The experiences of Carlos, and many others worldwide, tell us how urgent and important it is to make the right to housing real.