Europe, Human Rights

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We Europeans should have a debate about housing rights these days, especially because the gap between the rich and the poor is becoming wider and wider. We’ve decided to put the problem on the table and bring it to the public’s attention: causes, factors and facts regarding the right to housing, social housing and homelessness across the European Union.

Homelessness is hard to define because, for example, all the countries that are part of EU do not have the same definition for this term. In 2010 European Consensus Conference, stakeholders and the European Commission had signed an agreement, ETHOS, for homelessness and housing exclusion. They categorised it in 4 statements as following:

– rooflessness: people in emergency accommodation;
– houselessness: people in accommodation for the homeless;
– insecure accommodation: people living in insecure environments (threats of evictions, etc);
– inadequate housing: people living in unfit housing such as caravans and so on…

Homelessness is a sign of extreme poverty and social exclusion, and it does reduce an individual’s productive potential which is a waste of human capital, according to the European Union. People who are in the homeless category have limited access to or even a total lack of healthcare, social and other services and their human and civil rights are usually not exercised.

Guillem Fernandez Evangelista, author of Mean Streets, A report on the criminalization of homelessness in Europe said that “Criminalisation and penalisation of homeless people for carrying out life-sustaining activities in public because there is nowhere to go is a problem across the EU. Policies and measures, be they at local, regional or national level, that impose criminal or administrative penalties on homeless people are counterproductive and often violates human rights.”

The European Union’s Member States are committed to protect and promote human rights, through the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), signed by all of member states. I will enumerate several rights that are written in the ICCPR: the right to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, the right to liberty and security of the person, the right to privacy, the right to the family, the right to freedom of assembly and the right to vote.

Although human rights are an universal legal guarantee, the laws and social norms allow shameful violations of these rights. So, instead of finding a solution to the homelessness issue, the authorities chose to hide it or make it less visible through criminalisation and penalisation. Here are some legislations that are against homeless people across Europe:

– laws that makes it illegal to sleep, sit or store personal belonging in public spaces;
– punishment for begging, so the poor people will move from the urban area;
– ban or limit food distribution in public;
– public health ordinances that are related to public activities or hygiene;
– prohibition of removing items from recycling bins.

Guillem Fernandez Evangelista also said that “Europe is experiencing an alarming increase in punitive, coercive and repressive measures to expel homeless people from public spaces, hinder their access to basic rights like housing, and minimise the visibility of people experiencing homelessness through incarceration, detention, expulsion or deportation in case of migrants.”

It is quite ironic and unjust that no one is penalised if the right of housing is not achieved, yet homelessness is increasingly criminalised and shamed. Another revolting aspect is the European Union’s discourse and approach to homelessness and social exclusion. Their motivation for fighting those two social issues is bascially because the EU’s institutions are afraid homeless people are not productive but a waste of human capital. So if people are not productive they don’t deserve to be treated like humans and thus their rights don’t matter?

The social housing definition meets the same issue as homelessness definition, mostly because every other country has its own policies about it. For example, it may be the ownership for NGO’s and local authorities as in Netherlands and Sweden or constructors of dwellings as in Austria and France, or it represents rents that are below the market price as in Ireland and England, but in all of those countries the objective is to supply houses for those in need. “Housing is not free, and can be very expensive for the customer to obtain and to live in. This may seem an obvious statement, but why isn’t it free, or at least cheaper? It is a necessity, but so is air and is free. Water is also essential for survival, but does not cost very much to the consumer.”

In most studies of social housing across Europe, the western countries are included in survey mostly because they have long tradition of governments treating housing as an element of social policy. Hungary or other eastern countries are rarely included and used only for comparison.

In the majority of member states, there is a definite trend of decline in proportional terms of social housing stock, the only exception being Denmark. The demand for social housing is very high and growing, with long waiting lists in urban areas. On the other hand, there is also an oversupply of social housing in eastern Germany and northern England. We’ll talk more in depth about some of the countries from the EU so the readers can compare and have a clear idea about the whole picture.

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