Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare both the importance and scarcity of housing.
Health experts have advised people to stay home as a first line of defense against the virus, even as hundreds of thousands of Americans have no place to call home. Officials have struggled to track and tally the number of illnesses and deaths among people experiencing homelessness, underscoring how little we know about the health and welfare of our neighbors who are homeless.
In late December, the United Nations General Assembly passed its first-ever resolution on homelessness. This is a watershed moment, as homelessness has historically been absent from international policy discussions. Homelessness is not even explicitly included in any of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by all UN member states in 2015 to end poverty, reduce inequity and spur economic growth.
As a researcher who focuses on global homelessness and housing insecurity, I draw hope from the fact that world leaders are beginning to grapple with this tremendously important issue, which has both moral and practical implications.
The new resolution describes global homelessness as living on the streets or other places not fit for human habitation, living in shelters or temporary housing, or living in inadequate or insecure housing. The resolution urges member states to gather better data on homelessness and use that data to implement programs that will meaningfully address homelessness in their countries and around the world. Currently only 44 countries publicly report data on homelessness, and only 12% of those 44 have reported data since 2017. As a result of the resolution, the UN Secretary General will now report on global homelessness every two years beginning in 2022, which will keep this important issue in international dialogues going forward.
This resolution comes on the heels of the European Union’s new Platform on Combatting Homelessness, an initiative implemented last June that seeks to eradicate homelessness in Europe through reliable data collection, person-centered and housing-led policy, and collaboration across all EU countries.
We must seize this window of opportunity to keep homelessness in the spotlight, to press for the policies that will meaningfully address it, and to gather the data that informs us on what is and isn’t working, always acknowledging that behind every number stands a person experiencing homelessness — a person with his or her own story and insights and contributions to the world.
Homelessness is a complex topic, driven by poverty, rising housing costs and stagnant wages, and many other factors. People living at the intersections of race, disability, or different sexual orientations are particularly likely to experience homelessness. These driving factors are consistent in communities around the world. And there are many types of homelessness from street to shelter to living “doubled up” with friends or family that require different forms of support. The complexity of the problem makes it particularly difficult to solve.
But international learning shows us that homelessness can be ended with the right mix of policy and programs. Bright spots exist like Glasgow, Scotland, where street homelessness has decreased dramatically as a result of a coordinated and sustained effort during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our colleagues there used assertive street outreach techniques to engage people living on the street, creatively leveraged hotel rooms to house people experiencing homelessness while there was no business travel or tourism, provided assessment and support services to people while housed in hotels, and effectively moved them on to permanent accommodation. As a result, in Glasgow, the use of communal shelters has been able to be ended. We also look to Finland, where over the course of thirty years, smart policy and programs have nearly eliminated street and shelter homelessness and they now work to end homelessness for people living “doubled up.”
We can take heart in these examples of success and we can commit to doing better. We need everyday citizens to understand that our health and security and prosperity are bound together, and that if we prevent and end homelessness globally we will all be better off.
We have a moral obligation to ensure none of our neighbors experience homelessness, yet there are also public health benefits, economic gains and civic advantages to be had by creating communities where everyone is housed. When people are housed, we see steep reductions in emergency room visits and other expensive forms of healthcare, we see less recidivism and police involvement, and we see increased engagement with mental health services, substance use programs, and other social services that help people and communities thrive.
We need strong local, national, and international leaders to put policy into place that funds housing and services for people experiencing homelessness, and measures and reports on progress. We need service agencies to implement and scale person-centered and evidence-based programs that actually end homelessness for individuals and families. COVID-19 made plain the connection between health and housing; let’s ensure that all our efforts to build back better after a global pandemic include the foundation of housing.
Lydia Stazen is the executive director of the Ruff Institute of Global Homelessness at DePaul University and co-chair of the United Nations NGO Working Group to End Homelessness. Lydia is also a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.