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Europe

Conference seeks EU-wide consensus on homelessness policy

Despite the generous social welfare of many European states, homelessness continues to be a problem across the continent. Now leaders in the field are trying to come up with a unified solution for people with no home.

A homeless man in Cologne, Germany

Experts want to find a way to eliminate homelessness in Europe

Experts and field workers in the area of homelessness met in Brussels on Thursday and Friday in the hope of finding common ground on how to tackle homelessness across the European Union.

The European Consensus Conference on Homelessness was organized by the Belgian EU presidency and co-sponsored by the European Commission and the European Network of National Organizations Working with the Homeless.

Panels of experts attempted to answer six key questions, including how to define homelessness, how to ensure the participation of homeless people in policy decisions, and what elements should be key in an EU-wide strategy.

A seven-member jury will now deliberate over the coming weeks and present a consensus to the European Commission, which proposes EU laws, outlining how the bloc can guide the policies of its 27 member states with the goal of eliminating homelessness on the continent.

A homeless person on a park bench

The financial crisis has put many people on to the streets.

Lack of data

Participants and organizers recognized the difficult task at hand, especially in light of the wide gap in data and research into homelessness between regions.

"There is considerable evidence on homelessness in Europe, but our knowledge remains very uneven for the lack of data and understanding on some aspects of homelessness," said Eoin O'Sullivan, a lecturer at Trinity College in Dublin who presented research to the conference.

Another obstacle is the financial and economic crisis, which has pushed many middle class people into poverty and has forced European governments to reduce their budgets. Some representatives of eastern and southern European countries were skeptical about their governments' ability to pay for homelessness programs amid the call for austerity.

Profitable investment

But Juha Kaakinen, leader of the Finnish National Program to Reduce Long-term Homelessness, said getting the homeless off the streets, out of the shelters and into permanent housing is an investment.

"It's a question of social and human rights, but it's also a question of economic importance," he told Deutsche Welle. "We have some recent scientific research that shows that ending homelessness, getting permanent solutions for homeless people is very cost-effective."

The program Kaakinen leads for Finland began in the 1980s, when the country had approximately 20,000 homeless. Since then the homeless population has been reduced to 8,000, he said, with 3,000 living without a roof or in emergency shelters. This has led to an annual savings of 14,000 euros ($19,000) for each person transitioned into permanent housing.

"This is real money," Kaakinen said. "And in these times of economic problems… I think we cannot afford not to invest in solving homelessness."

a homeless person in Germany rummaging in a garbage container

Research about the scale of the problem varies across Europe

Elusive goal

Perhaps the greatest obstacle the jury faces is reaching a consensus on homelessness policy - especially one all member states could accept - when the EU is still struggling to agree on multiple other issues.

Gilberte Eeckhout, director of the Pierre d'Angle emergency homeless shelter in Brussels, said while she appreciated the goal of the conference, she did not think it would be achieved quickly.

"At the federal level at the moment we have no government in Belgium, so I don't think that there will be a consensus on the European level," she said. "What I hope is that step by step there will be something, and what I hope is that it will be for the benefit of those who are homeless."

Author: Andrew Bowen, Brussels
Editor: Susan Houlton

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