Helping the homeless is not a political choice

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

Freek Spinnewijn and Marc Uhry "Helping the homeless is not a political choice". [Sascha Kohlmann/Flickr]

Athens this week defied the Commission by enacting new social inclusion measures for the homeless. But denying Greek citizens their fundamental right to housing assistance would be a breach of EU law, argue Freek Spinnewijn and Marc Uhry. 

Freek Spinnewijn is the Director of FEANTSA and Marc Uhry is Head of Europe at Fondation Abbé Pierre.

This week, the Greek parliament passed a law named the “Humanitarian Crisis Bill”, aimed at providing basic electricity to the poorest and to address the worst forms of social exclusion among pensioners and homeless people. The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs wrote a letter at the very last moment to warn the Greek government that adopting the law would be a breach of the Eurogroup’s agreement of February 2015.

It is clear that the current fiscal and financial situation of Greece impacts on its social ambitions. We understand this, and we accept that both sides have legitimate arguments. It is probably not up to us NGOs to take sides. But it certainly is our role to alert stakeholders and the general public when decisions cross an ethical line. Forbidding a country that has experienced massive increases in homelessness since the start of the crisis from intervening and offering humanitarian assistance is without any doubt a bridge too far.  

Homelessness is arguably the most extreme form of social exclusion and its mere existence is a breach of fundamental rights. Homelessness is an unacceptable denial of the right to human dignity on which our common democratic culture is founded. Fighting homelessness can never be reduced to a political choice. It must be an urgent responsibility for any government. Helping the most excluded and protecting the dignity of homeless people is the absolute minimum needed to provide sufficient legitimacy to any democratically elected government.

Helping the homeless is not only a moral duty, it is a legal obligation. It is EU law. Article 34 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights guarantees the fundamental right to housing assistance. Several other rights in the Charter such as the right to family life, privacy, and even some civil rights are conditional upon the person having a decent place to live. The Lisbon Treaty gave the Charter the legal value of a Treaty of the Union. Any country that is forced to stop providing basic housing assistance as part of EU legislation or policy would therefore be in breach of the highest EU law.

No one is therefore in a position to negotiate on whether or not a country’s government is allowed to help the homeless. The EU cannot ask a country to breach EU law. 

There should be room for negotiations with Greece. The political reality makes such negotiations necessary. But these negotiations cannot lead to an obvious breach of internationally recognised fundamental rights, especially not when it comes to the most excluded and vulnerable citizens.

Shared values and common expectations are part of the European project. The social model is something the EU rightly cherishes. Respecting fundamental rights and the rule of law are fundamental features of the EU process. In difficult times, more than ever, we should not allow the fundamental rights and dignity of people experiencing homelessness to be used as stakes in financial deal-making. 

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