The EU should encourage member states to work towards ending homelessness and ensuring decent housing for all. So says a group of social policy experts, who are calling on the European Commission to develop an EU-level strategy for tackling homelessness.
The eradication of homelessness is a realistic goal for the European Union and should be one of the main objectives of efforts to tackle poverty and social exclusion in the framework of the 'Europe 2020' strategy.
This was the main message of a report prepared by an international team of experts in the fields of social policy and human rights, presented to journalists in Brussels yesterday (8 February).
"In the long term we think we can really end homelessness," said Frank Vandenbroucke – a former minister for social affairs in the Belgian federal government – who chaired the group that drafted the report.
An 'important opportunity'
Vandenbroucke believes that a European strategy to tackle homelessness should be developed at EU level, and believes this should be seen as a key element of the 'Europe 2020' strategy to boost Europe's growth and competitiveness, which was adopted by EU leaders in 2010.
"Thanks to the work of the Commission and the Council over the last few months, there is a very positive and important opportunity here," said Vandenbroucke.
"The Commission has set very ambitious and also quite tangible targets for the EU, with a horizon of 2020, in terms of fighting social exclusion and poverty," he noted.
The former minister made clear his support for the Commission's plans to establish a European Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion, which were unveiled at the end of last year.
According to Vandenbroucke, an EU strategy against homelessness could be much more than simply one element of this overall strategy against poverty. He says that it could also be seen as a political initiative in its own right, which would lead citizens to "understand that the EU has an added value in the social domain, and has some substance".
Elements of an EU homelessness strategy
At the end of 2010, the European Parliament adopted a written declaration, calling on the European Commission "to develop an ambitious EU homelessness strategy and to support member states in developing effective national strategies".
The report presented by Vandenbroucke is the result of a consultation process that took place last year on the initiative of the Belgian EU Presidency, which hosted a 'European consensus conference on homelessness' in Brussels last December.
The report calls for better understanding of homelessness and housing problems on the basis of commonly accepted definitions, and for the collection of comparable data to measure the extent of these phenomena across all the member states.
It says that an EU homelessness strategy should provide a framework for the development of national strategies, with clear targets and timetables for eradicating the most extreme manifestations of homelessness (so-called 'rough sleeping'), and limiting the amount of time that people are expected to live in hostels and other kinds of temporary accommodation.
"We want long-term stable solutions for as many people as possible, and we think it's possible to arrive at this situation in the long term by combining preventative policies, for instance fighting evictions, and also offering housing policies," said Vandenbroucke.
Commission insists on integrated approach
The EU commissioner in charge of employment and social policy, László Andor, welcomed the publication of the report, which he described as "a concrete outcome of the European Year on combating poverty and social exclusion".
"We can and must put an end to homelessness," said the commissioner. "Sleeping rough and homelessness are a violation of the core values of the European Union."
"Homelessness and housing deprivation are one of the most extreme forms of poverty and deprivation," he continued, explaining the problem should be tackled in the context of poverty and social exclusion in Europe.
Andor highlighted the Commission's proposal to set up a European Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion, with the aim of providing a framework at EU level for the renewal of efforts to tackle poverty in the member states.
"Within the framework of the Platform, housing deprivation can be addressed as part of an integrated approach," said the commissioner, who believes methods can be identified to boost housing inclusion.
While recognising that "the main responsibility for housing lies with the member states themselves," Andor insisted that there is a strong European dimension too, especially in the implementation of what he called evidence-based social innovations.
"We will work to strengthen the exchange of experiences and encourage partnerships, and quality social services dealing with priority areas like homelessness," he continued.
Andor also emphasised the contribution of the EU structural funds, noting that the eligibility rules for the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) have recently been amended to allow investments in housing to promote social cohesion and energy efficiency.