Homes, not spikes, are the answer to homelessness

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

Freek Spinnewijn

Freek Spinnewijn

Amidst the ‘spikes’ scandal meant to drive away homeless people from public spaces, Freek Spinnewijn calls for “more affordable housing that is accessible for homeless people, who have the right to a decent place to live as much as the next person.”

By Freek Spinnewijn, Director, European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA)

For several weeks, traditional and new media the world over have been gripped by reactions and opposition to the use of metal spikes and other urban architecture aimed at keeping homeless people out of public places and public view.

FEANTSA welcomes the opposition to these practices and the heightened awareness that the ‘homeless spikes’ issue has given to homelessness and homeless people’s rights.  It now encourages harnessing this energy in order to promote sustainable solutions to homelessness, including coordinated homelessness strategies. 

The media, citizen and mayoral protests sparked across Europe and the world against ‘defensive architecture’ and particularly the ‘anti-homeless spikes’ in front of a London apartment building have revealed a heartening understanding of the need for a more humane approach to homelessness.

Unfortunately, stigmatising, punitive approaches to homelessness are not uncommon and are even increasing in Europe, as demonstrated by FEANTSA’s Housing Rights Watch in its 2013 study ‘Mean Streets: A Report on the Criminalisation of Homelessness in Europe’. 

The worrying trend of European cities and countries criminalising homeless people as a quick fix attempt to disguise signs of growing poverty is cruel and concentrates efforts in the wrong solutions.

However, the substantial attention given to the issue recently and the resulting removal of the ‘homeless spikes’ in some areas is encouraging and shows that the time is ripe to go even further and find real, sustainable solutions to homelessness in Europe.

Now is the time to say: People need homes, not to be chased out of cities and out of sight.

‘Managing’ homelessness is not enough. Not only should there be no spikes to shoo away rough sleepers, no one should be forced to sleep rough. The European Union and its Member States must commit to putting an end to homelessness and the obligation to sleep rough, using a rights-based approach and housing-led solutions.

In order to make a positive difference for homeless people, homelessness needs to be dealt with strategically, not with ad hoc, penalising approaches that only displace the problem rather than solving it, and violate people’s rights in the process.

In its recently-published social investment package (SIP), the European Commission calls on European member states to “confront homelessness through comprehensive strategies based on prevention, housing-led approaches and reviewing regulations and practices on eviction”. This call must be followed up on.

As part of a strategic approach to homelessness, rather than stigmatising, impersonal approaches to homelessness, Europe needs more affordable housing that is accessible for homeless people, who have the right to a decent place to live as much as the next person.

Experts increasingly agree that this can be achieved through ‘housing-led’ approaches to tackling homelessness.  Their use in European and international projects and national homelessness policy has been found to be particularly effective for helping people exit homelessness sustainably.

These approaches start from the principle of housing as a basic human right, providing housing from the outset and the social and mental health support the person requires as and when needed.

Policies like this that put people first, and put people in homes, will be instrumental in ending homelessness.

While it might seem to be a difficult task, homelessness can – and indeed should – be ended. This can be achieved using specific homelessness strategies, as called for in the SIP, and people-orientated solutions.

This is why FEANTSA promotes the use of integrated, rights-based, housing-led strategies to tackle homelessness, instead of spikes. The European Union and its Member States can make this happen.