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European Platform on Combating Homelessness: 10 Elements for Consideration

The UN Human Rights Office welcomes the political momentum by the EU institutions to tackle homelessness, including the leadership demonstrated by Commissioner Schmidt and the landmark resolution adopted by the European Parliament in January 2021 on decent and affordable housing for all. We welcome the adoption of the European Platform on Combating Homelessness (the Platform) as part of the Action Plan to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights.

On 02 Jun 2021

The UN Human Rights Office has a mandate to promote and protect human rights worldwide. With a view to ensuring implementation of international human rights standards by member States, we support States, civil society and national human rights institutions in the design of laws and policies that protect and promote these rights.

This paper outlines 10 elements on homelessness and the right to housing drawn from the international human rights system which may inspire and guide the design of the Platform and measures adopted under the Platform.

In sum, we encourage the EU to establish the Platform within the context of international human rights principles, instruments, and mechanisms. This can provide direction for the scope, content, and methodology of the Platform and can bolster the EU’s effort to close gaps in the enjoyment of social rights across the region, while leaving no one behind.

1. Defining homelessness

Multiple definitions of homelessness have been proposed by international organizations, national legislation and statistics, and civil society organisations. Homelessness takes many different forms, including living in temporary shelters, being forced to live with relatives and friends because of lack of housing, etc. The Statistics division of the United Nations Economic and Social Affairs Department (UN DESA) proposes two categories or degrees of homelessness:

(a) Primary homelessness (or rooflessness). This category includes persons living in streets or without a shelter that would fall within the scope of living quarters; (b) Secondary homelessness. This category may include the following groups: (i) Persons with no place of usual residence who move frequently between various types of accommodation (including dwellings, shelters or other living quarters); (ii) Persons usually resident in long-term (also called “transitional”) shelters or similar arrangements for the homeless”

The former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing has outlined three dimensions to homelessness:

1) The absence of home in terms of both its physical structure and its social aspects;

2) Homelessness is a form of systemic discrimination and social exclusion, whereby “the homeless” become a social group subject to stigmatization;

3) Homeless people are resilient in the struggle for survival and dignity and are potential agents of change as rights holders.

Solid and comprehensive frameworks to monitor and measure homelessness have been proposed at international[4] and European[5] levels. Yet, limited data are available about the scale of this phenomenon, which in turn impedes the development of coherent strategies and policies to prevent and address it. People living in homelessness remain largely a population that is “left behind” and “invisible”. The SDGs, in particular SDG 1 (no poverty), 3 (health), 8 (decent work), 10 (reducing inequalities) and 11 (sustainable cities and communities), favour a wider definition of homelessness.

It is also important to differentiate between causes (structural, unaffordability, foreclosure, lack of tenant protection, evictions, etc.) and consequences (to address and remedy the situation of people in situation of homelessness). While they are linked, they require different actions by the State.

2. Homelessness is a human rights violation

The Platform should recognise that homelessness is an egregious violation of human rights, threatening the health and life of the most marginalized. It is the unacceptable result of States failing to implement the right to adequate housing and requires urgent and immediate human rights responses by the international community and by all States.”

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Human Rights Committee have recognized that distinctions based on socioeconomic status, including homelessness, are a form of discrimination that must be prohibited in domestic law.

Furthermore, homelessness results from the violation of multiple human rights in addition to housing, such as the rights to an adequate standard of living, to health, to privacy, to work, to social security and to education, as well as civil and political rights, such as the right to vote. Unfortunately, despite the recognition of these rights in international human rights treaties, very few policies address homelessness as a human rights violation, effectively integrate the gender dimension, or provide for effective monitoring, enforcement or remedies.

3. State obligations under international human rights law

All EU member states have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and other relevant international human rights treaties. These existing binding standards should frame the work of the Platform. The Platform can focus on how these legal obligations can be effectively translated at all levels of Government: local, provincial/federal State, and national.

In line with these treaties, EU member States have the following obligations:

States sometimes view eliminating homelessness as an issue they may “progressively realize”. However, according to international law, States must take immediate actions in certain areas, irrespective of the resources they have. These include: (a) to adopt and implement strategies to eliminate homelessness, with clear goals, targets and timelines; (b) to eliminate forced evictions and prohibit any evictions that result in homelessness; (c) to combat and prohibit in law criminalization, discrimination, stigma and negative stereotyping of homeless people, including by third parties; (d) to ensure access to legal and other remedies for violations of rights, including for the failure of States to take positive measures to address homelessness (see section below, on Access to Justice);(e) to regulate third-party actors so that their actions are consistent with the elimination of homelessness and do not discriminate either directly or indirectly against homeless people; and (f) to enable access to justice and protection of human rights of those who are at risk of becoming homeless or already in situation of homelessness.

EU member States have the legal obligation to make use of maximum available resources to prevent and eliminate homelessness. Preventing and eliminating homelessness is a “minimum core obligation [of States] to ensure the satisfaction of, at the very least, minimum essential levels of each of the rights.” This means that States have an immediate obligation to respond urgently to the needs of persons who are currently homeless. States should provide access to safe, secure and dignified emergency accommodation, with necessary supports and without discrimination on any grounds, including migration status, nationality, gender, family status, sexual identity, age, ethnic origin, disability, dependence on alcohol or drugs, criminal record, outstanding fines or health. States should take special measures to protect the rights of children in street situations. Therefore, public funds should prioritise investments in affordable housing with social support; and authorities should put in place laws and policies prioritising the use of public land for affordable housing and reserving a percentage of new building projects to affordable housing.

The promotion of rights-based and effective strategies, following the “Housing First Approach”, in particular for persons with multiple needs or psycho-social disabilities, have shown remarkable results. Such measures should be favoured over expanding shelter systems. While shelters are important, they should be used as short-term temporary emergency housing only. Persons in situation of homelessness should have access to suitable and affordable long-term housing which provides security of tenure as soon as possible. This can be supported if required by ambulant social, psycho-medical, legal and other supports in an ordinary housing unit within the community. This approach is also in line with the right of persons to live independently in the community, pursuant to article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Prevention of homelessness also involves addressingsystemic issues related to housing policy. This includes reversing the trend of lack of affordable housing in most European cities, and the reduction in affordable public or privately offered housing in urban areas where it is high in demand. It also involves ensuring that the law should never enable an eviction into a situation of homelessness. The Platform can helpfully build on the 2016 Study commissioned by the European Commission entitled “Promoting protection of the right to housing – homelessness protection in the context of evictions.”

Finally, it means that States that have failed to reduce and eliminate homelessness must show that they have actually lacked the required resources to do so, in order to remain in conformity with their obligations under Articles 2 (1) and 11 (1) under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

States should also adopt a national housing strategy that “reflects genuine and effective consultation with, and participation by, all of those affected, including the homeless, the inadequately housed and their representatives.”

Under international human rights law, all States have the obligation to track and measure homelessness regularly. States are obliged to ascertain the full extent of homelessness and inadequate housing within their jurisdiction. OHCHR recommends the use of the ETHOS typology of homelessness and housing exclusion as a scientifically sound framework for tracking and measuring homelessness, and ETHOS light with its harmonised definition of homelessness for statistical purposes.

Regrettably despite the availability of the ETHOS framework, there has not yet been made an attempt by Eurostat and all EU member States to survey under a common methodology homelessness in all its different forms. This should be a priority to be addressed jointly by Eurostat, National Statistical Offices and the Platform.

4. Leave no one behind: SDGs and the New Urban Agenda

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the commitments undertaken by EU member States in the New Urban Agenda should be the guiding principles of the work of Platform.

The SDGs and the Agenda 2030 have the potential to address housing issues and homelessness from a human rights-based approach. While all Goals are relevant in terms of efforts to realise the human rights of persons in situations of homelessness, Goals 1 (combating poverty), 3 (health), 10 (reducing inequalities) and 11 (safe, inclusive and resilient cities) and their corresponding targets are particularly important.

The Habitat III Conference was the first international UN conference after the adoption of the SDGs. Its outcome document, the New Urban Agenda (NUA), is guided by the principle of leaving no one behind. Member States have undertaken to eradicate extreme poverty, and to provide equal access for all to physical and social infrastructure and basic services, as well as adequate and affordable housing. It also recognizes “the need to give particular attention to addressing multiple forms of discrimination”, including for homeless people. It commits to “promoting housing policies” to support the right to adequate housing “that address all forms of discrimination and violence and prevent arbitrary forced evictions and that focus on the needs of the homeless, …”. The NUA also promotes “the development of adequate and enforceable regulations in the housing Sector…, combating and preventing speculation, displacement, homelessness and arbitrary forced evictions …”

In order to “leave no one behind”, homeless persons should be fully considered in the monitoring of the SDGs (see below section on monitoring) and of the NUA.

5. Ending the criminalization of persons in a situation of homelessness

The Platform can be an important tool to push for ending criminalization of homelessness, tackling discrimination against homeless people and to exchange good practices in this area.

A worrying trend, in various parts of the world, is the criminalization of rough sleepers and its manifestations. This criminalization takes various forms: in laws[15]; round-up and displacement in the outskirts of cities or in camps before mega events like the Olympics; public space infrastructure that prevents people from sleeping (e.g. benches with armrests, etc.); prohibition of using public facilities, etc.

Human rights mechanisms have condemned these attempts to hide the reality of homelessness and the failure of the State to address its causes. The UN Guidelines for the Implementation of the Right to Adequate Housing call for ending the criminalization of persons in situation of homelessness. Guideline No. 5 recommends that “States should prohibit and address discrimination on the ground of homelessness or other housing status and repeal all laws and measures that criminalize or penalize homeless people or behaviour associated with being homeless, such as sleeping or eating in public spaces. The forced eviction of homeless persons from public spaces and the destruction of their personal belongings must be prohibited. Homeless persons should be equally protected from interference with privacy and the home, wherever they are living”.

Similarly, the UN Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights call upon States to assess and address any disproportionate effect of criminal sanctions and incarceration proceedings on persons living in poverty; and “Repeal or reform any laws that criminalize life-sustaining activities in public places, such as sleeping, begging, eating or performing personal hygiene activities.”

Furthermore, States have undertaken to end the criminalization of homelessness in the New Urban Agenda (NUA): “[W]e commit ourselves to combating homelessness as well as to combating and eliminating its criminalization through dedicated policies and targeted active inclusion strategies, such as comprehensive, inclusive and sustainable housing first programmes.” (para. 108). Rather, States should provide, within their justice system, alternative procedures for dealing with minor offences of homeless people to help them break the cycle of criminalization, incarceration and homelessness and secure the right to housing. Police should be trained to interact with homeless persons in a manner that respects and promotes their dignity and rights.

6. Debunking the myths

The Platform is an opportunity to debunk a number of myths that persist around homelessness which lead to stigmatization, discrimination and marginalization.

Homelessness is a result of many factors that are beyond a person’s control. This includes family breakdown, abusive treatment, disability, illness, loss of a job, injury, parental abandonment, sexual abuse, domestic violence, loss of a partner, evictions, unaffordable rents, etc. Homeless people are extremely vulnerable, they experience stress, violence, hunger, need to cope with weather conditions, experiencing frostbites (with subsequent amputation) or death. In addition, many people living in a homelessness situation hide this fact from people, including friends and family. Homeless people tend to be charged with crimes or offenses related to their situation, including sleeping in public, trespassing, vagrancy, and misdemeanour theft.

Increasingly, even people with work are homeless, living in tents or cars, because of the impossibility to access affordable housing. The lack of stable address or phone, compounded with the stigmatization that homeless people suffer, renders finding a job relatively impossible.>/p>

7. Need for an integrated approach

The Platform should enshrine a holistic approach to tackling homelessness, as outlined by the Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing.[21] Such an approach involves addressing gaps in access to the rights to health, to privacy, to work, to social security and to services that are needed for a transition from homelessness to adequate housing that is sustainable in the long-term, and effectively integrating the gender dimension.

Institutionalized coordination across sectors and levels of government, as well as with private for-profit and not-for-profit providers, is crucial to ensure that social protection, public services and infrastructure policies complement one other in addressing homelessness.

By way of example, the Global Partnership for Universal Social Protection to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals(USP2030)has shown how social protection is an essential tool for reducing poverty. The right to social protection encompasses the right to access and maintain benefits without discrimination and to secure protection from the lack of work-related income due to sickness, disability, maternity, employment injury, unemployment, old age or death of a family member, unaffordable access to health care or insufficient family support, particularly for children and adult dependants. In the absence of adequate wage protection, social security protects the “working poor” against homelessness and inadequate housing.

8. Access to Justice

The Platform is an opportunity to ensure the question of access to justice for violations of rights related to homelessness are on the agenda. The right to housing must be claimable and enshrined in national law and effective judicial and non-judicial avenues must be in place.

The Platform should include measures for enhancing access to justice for persons at risk of homelessness or in situation of homelessness, including by promoting the exchange of promising practices in a number of areas, such as on:

  • Legal advice mechanisms to prevent homelessness.
  • How States and local authorities have avoided evictions.
  • Training of relevant actors like social workers, tenant associations, social housing associations, home owners and property management companies, police and the judiciary.
  • Inviting international experts to such exchanges can help to inform and frame the discussion and provide further guidance on international standards.

    The Platform could as well develop proposals for legal reform of national eviction procedures to ensure that evictions into situation of homelessness are strictly prohibited under national law in EU member States and that evictions can only be enforced by courts and law enforcement officials when proven that reasonable alternative housing has either been offered or is available to the concerned individual. This should include a strict prohibition of evictions of persons into homelessness from temporary accommodation or emergency shelters, basically nobody seeking support in emergency accommodation should be discharged to the street.

    In addition, we encourage the Platform to work with independent quasi-judicial or non-judicial complaints mechanisms, such as ombudspersons or human rights institutions to strengthen their role in preventing evictions and ensuring access to housing for persons who already find themselves in situation of homelessness. Equality bodies and National human rights institutions are important partners in this area – their expertise should be drawn upon.

    9. Monitoring

    The Platform should foresee a robust monitoring and accountability framework. This not only serves to hold States and public authorities accountable, but also to help track progress, identify gaps in law and policy and take appropriate corrective action to obtain more effective results.

    We encourage the EU to ensure that the measures under the Platform are bound by clear targets, timeframes and mechanisms to check if, when and how results are achieved.

    States should be encouraged to collect data and seek to measure the extent of homelessness, disaggregated “by income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location and other characteristics relevant in national contexts” (SDG target 17.18). Those data are crucial for grounding state interventions in reality, adapting them and effectively monitoring their progress.

    In some instances, rights and benefits are not taken up due to various administrative or other obstacles. For instance, some social protection measures require official registrations and addresses, which is problematic for those in situation of homelessness. Measuring the extent to which rights are not taken up could therefore be useful to craft policy to address those obstacles.

    The framework should also provide for measuring the extent to which the “right to adequate housing” and other related rights for homelessness (social protection, health, etc.) are actually implemented through the measures foreseen in the Platform. The Office has worked on indicators to track implementation of international human rights, including in the field of housing. These indicators were developed with a contribution by the European Union. The Global SDGs indicators can also serve as a useful tool. Our Office stands ready to provide support on operationalising these indicators in the EU context.

    10. Governance and Partnerships

    The Platform is an opportunity for meaningful multi-stakeholder involvement and participation of rights-holders in decision making. We recommend considering the establishment of an Advisory Board to the Platform (or as part of the Platform itself as appropriate) which could include representation from the following:

  • people with lived experience;
  • organisations representing homeless people and people in extreme poverty;
  • national human rights institutions;
  • the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing;
  • international organisations.
  • Formal mechanisms should be established for ongoing consultation in elaborating and implementing measures under the Platform with key stakeholders, including local authorities, NHRIs, international and civil society organisations.

    The establishment of the Platform is a welcome signal by the EU to work towards eliminating homelessness in Europe. Integrating international human rights principles and standards in the work of the Platform will not only help EU member States meet their international obligations but will also lead to more effective and sustainable results to combat homelessness. In line with the above 10 elements, the UN Human Rights Office encourages the EU to ensure the principles of non-discrimination, participation, transparency and accountability are at the heart of this endeavour, and we – as well as the independent experts of the human rights system – are ready to provide support as appropriate.