EU must tackle homelessness to achieve SDGs

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

Extreme poverty is often underestimated in Europe. [Hakan Dahlstrom/Flickr]

In order to deliver on the 2030 Agenda, Europe has to leave homelessness – not homeless people – behind, writes Ruth Owen.

Ruth Owen is policy coordinator for FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless.

The UN 2030 Agenda is a commitment to eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development worldwide, and at its heart is a pledge to leave no-one behind. This needs to mean delivering for everyone, making special efforts to reach the poorest and most vulnerable. We cannot look forward to a future without poverty when hundreds of thousands of people within the EU face homelessness every day.

The EU has a vital role to play in delivering on the 2030 Agenda, just as it was instrumental in shaping the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Indeed, on 22 November 2016, the European Commission published a Communication on ‘Next steps for a sustainable European future: European action for sustainability’ and First Vice-President Frans Timmermans stated “we are making the SDGs and sustainability a guiding principle in all our work”. Preventing and tackling homelessness must be a cornerstone of the EU’s response to the sustainability challenge.

Of the 17 SDGs, homelessness is particularly relevant to the following three goals, the achievement of which is simply not possible without decisive action to end homelessness.

The first is SDG1 – Eradicating poverty in all its forms – which, as the title suggests, is unquestionably linked with fight against homelessness. Extreme poverty is often treated as a non-issue in the EU, despite it being a clear reality, manifest in persistent and increasing homelessness. Whilst the global definition of $1.90 a day is not appropriate in this context, it would be misleading and wrong for the EU to focus exclusively on relative poverty, which is what the “at risk of poverty indicator” predominantly captures. This is especially true in a context of dramatic increases in homelessness in many member states, a trend that is often at odds with evolutions in relative poverty.

The second is SDG3 – Ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages. Housing is a social determinant of health and homelessness is associated with ill-health and dramatically lower-than-average life expectancy.

Finally, SDG11 – Making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. This goal includes providing safe, adequate housing for all. By definition this includes preventing and addressing homelessness.

Four points need to be addressed in order to meet the goals and stop leaving homeless people behind.

Firstly, steps should be taken by member states to develop homelessness strategies and the EU should monitor and support their progress. Homelessness should also be maintained and indeed strengthened as a thematic priority in the EU’s social policy field, especially under the Social Rights Pillar, the European Semester, the Social Open Method of Coordination and of course, the new EU Urban Agenda, which will be a particularly important framework for addressing sustainability challenges. Initiatives such as the Skills Agenda, the Migration Agenda, the Youth Guarantee, the Disability Strategy and so on all need to specifically target those facing homelessness. Otherwise the EU and its member states will continue to leave people behind.

Secondly, the Europe 2020 Strategy’s poverty target has failed to fully engage with the reality of extreme poverty in the EU. It’s vital that in its next ten-year plan, the EU addresses this gap. To do so, the Commission and member states should commit to ending the scandal of homelessness in the post-2020 era. This should start with a commitment to ensuring that no one need sleep rough by 2030.

Furthermore, to truly ensure no one is left behind, the homeless need to be viewed as key stakeholders by the European Commission. The Commission plans to launch a multi-stakeholder platform on the 2030 Agenda. It must actively reach out to include those that are currently left behind, such as the homeless. If only broader sustainability perspectives are focused on, the most vulnerable will continue to be left out.

Finally, in order to truly know where the EU and member states stand in relation to the implementation of the SDGs, indicators on homelessness and housing exclusion must be part of the Commission’s reporting of the EU’s progress towards the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. Worryingly, Eurostat’s first overview of where the EU and member states currently stand has left homelessness and extreme poverty completely out of the picture. From 2017 onwards, the Commission will carry out more detailed regular monitoring, developing a reference indicator framework for the SDGs. As a matter of urgency, Eurostat and other Commission services need to develop a strategy for measuring extreme poverty and housing exclusion. The Sustainable Development Goals are a historic opportunity for individual member states and the EU as a whole to take positive action to prevent and tackle homelessness.

Be fair, Europe. Stand up for the homeless.

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