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Affordable Housing, Inclusive Economic Policies Key to Ending Homelessness, Speakers Say as Social Development Commission Begins Annual Session

Homelessness is a global problem that affects people in both developed and developing countries, regardless of economic, social and cultural backgrounds, and addressing it in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will require both innovative policies and inclusive partnerships, the Commission on Social Development heard today as it opened its fifty-eighth session.

“Homelessness is a harmful form of systemic discrimination and social exclusion,” affecting people everywhere, said Liu Zhenmin, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs.  Its causes are many and interrelated, ranging from the unravelling of working-class communities to substance abuse and “unchecked gentrification”.  He called for redoubled efforts “to rid the world of this inhumane scourge” through adequate, accessible and affordable housing, expanded social protection systems, and measures to mitigate the impact of climate change.

Gbolié Désiré Wulfran Ipo (Côte d’Ivoire), who was elected Chair of the session by acclamation at the start of the meeting, noted that the Commission’s focus on affordable housing and social protection systems dovetails with the start of a new Decade of Action to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals.  As its outcome document, the Commission will seek to adopt its first resolution addressing homelessness, thus contributing to the Economic and Social Council’s 2020 high-level political forum and high-level segment later this year, he explained.

The last time the United Nations attempted to count the global number of homeless people, in 2005, it estimated that 100 million people were homeless, according to a report of the Secretary-General prepared for the Commission. Globally, 1.6 billion people live in inadequate housing conditions, with about 15 million forcefully evicted every year, it added, citing data from the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat).

Daniel Perell, Chairperson of the NGO Committee on Social Development, asked the Commission to adopt a clear and universal definition of homelessness as well as the establishment of standardized measurements to better gauge the scale of the problem.

Olivia Tan Jia Yi, speaking on behalf of the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth, said that decent housing should be accessible and affordable to youth, children and people of all socioeconomic classes.  “A roof over our heads and four solid, warm walls are not a human luxury, but a necessity for a fulfilling life and decent livelihoods,” she said.

During the ensuing general debate, speakers underscored the multifaceted nature of homelessness — which, as the Secretary-General’s report noted, has no universally agreed definition — and the challenges that Member States are facing in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals’ pledge to ensure adequate, safe and affordable housing for all.  Many also underscored the impact that climate change is having on accessible and affordable housing.

Guyana’s representative, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said that despite significant progress in addressing homelessness, statistics reveal that its prevalence has increased in the past decade.  “Data also confirm that homelessness is one of the most glaring symptoms of lack of access to education, health and productive employment, inequality and social exclusion,” he said, adding that poverty reduction must remain the international community’s highest priority.

Angola’s delegate, speaking for the African Group, said poverty — especially rural poverty — is the main driver of homelessness in developing countries.  Noting that 23.5 per cent of the world’s urban population lived in slums in 2018, she said structural causes should be addressed through partnerships as well as policy interventions that distinguish between chronic and transitional homelessness.

Finland’s youth delegate said homelessness among young people is on the rise and can easily go unnoticed.  It is the most radical form of social marginalization and among the most serious problems facing youth globally, he said, adding that issues leading to homelessness can be prevented through comprehensive health and youth inclusion policies.

Belarus’s representative said his country does not have a big homeless problem nor does it have any homeless children.  Accessible housing is an important State priority and a basic element for preventing homelessness, he said, adding that building family housing is an important socioeconomic priority.

In other business, the Commission today elected by acclamation Sharifa Yousef Al-Nesf (Qatar), Caroline Bartel (Austria) and Nikola Nenov (Bulgaria) as Vice-Chairs of the session, while postponing the election of a Vice-Chair from Latin America and the Caribbean.  Ms. Al-Nesf will serve as Rapporteur.  It also adopted its provisional agenda and organization of work (document E/CN.5/2020/1).

In the afternoon, the Commission held a high-level panel discussion on the theme “Affordable housing and social protection systems for all to address homelessness”.

Also speaking during the general debate were ministers, senior officials and representatives of Croatia (on behalf of the European Union), Thailand (on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), Haiti (on behalf of the Caribbean Community), Ghana, Peru, Ukraine and Venezuela.  Haiti’s delegate also made a national statement.

The Commission will reconvene at 10 a.m., Tuesday, 11 February, to continue its programme of work.

Opening Remarks

Following his election as Chair, GBOLIÉ DÉSIRÉ WULFRAN IPO (Côte d’Ivoire) said the Commission — which, like the United Nations itself, is marking its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2020 — plays a critical role in supporting Member States in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  The year 2020 also marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the World Summit for Social Development, held in Copenhagen in 1995.  Emphasizing that the meeting’s inclusive principles remain highly relevant today, he underlined the 2030 Agenda’s promise that no one should be left behind because of their gender, race, ethnicity, age, social or economic status or where they live.  Against that backdrop, he welcomed the Commission’s 2020 focus on affordable housing and social protection systems and the fact that it coincides with the start of a new Decade of Action to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals.

Noting that this year’s meeting will explore strategies to accelerate progress on Goals 1, 8, 10 and 11 — on ending poverty, ensuring decent work and economic growth, reducing inequality and building sustainable cities and communities, respectively — he said the focus will be on supporting States in realizing those targets and the right to adequate housing enshrined in the 2016 New Urban Agenda.  As its outcome document, the Commission will seek to adopt its first resolution addressing homelessness.  Action-oriented policy recommendations, together with summaries of the session’s various panel discussions, will serve as the Commission’s contribution to the Economic and Social Council’s 2020 high-level political forum and high-level segment.  The Commission will also deliberate on issues pertaining to the social dimensions of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and modalities for the fourth review and appraisal of the implementation of the 2002 Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing, he said.

LIU ZHENMIN, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, said that 25 years after the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen, conflict, poverty and disease continue to shorten the lives of many.  Rising inequality, slowing economic growth, climate change and the impact of technology on the future of work are squeezing the prospects of social and sustainable development.  “In short, we’re not on track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.”  Underscoring the Commission’s unique mandate to ensure that those left behind see meaningful improvements in their daily lives, and drawing attention to the Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ recently launched World Social Report 2020, he said solutions much be found to address the vulnerabilities of those left behind.

“Homelessness is a harmful form of systemic discrimination and social exclusion,” affecting people everywhere, he said.  Its causes are many and interrelated, including the unravelling of working-class communities, declining manufacturing employment, substance abuse and “unchecked gentrification”.  In many countries, the supply of adequate and affordable housing is failing to keep up with demand, he said, adding that housing for the past 20 years has been largely unaffordable for most of the world’s population.  Many of the world’s 25 million refugees live in inadequate shelters, while the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing describes homelessness as a global human rights crisis.

For the most vulnerable, homelessness is not only that lack of physical housing, but also a loss of family, community and a sense of belonging, as well as an erosion of self-esteem leading to substance abuse, poor health and loss of life, he continued.  It affects people of all ages, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds, he said, pointing to the rapid growth of homelessness among older people, particularly older women, who are more vulnerable to poverty, and young people and migrants, who lack financial stability.

“We must redouble our efforts to rid the world of this inhumane scourge that is homelessness,” he said, highlighting the need for adequate, accessible and affordable housing, expanded social protection systems, and measures to mitigate the impact of climate change while also building safe and accessible neighbourhoods.  Effectively addressing homeless will require policies and partnership between Governments, civil society and faith-based organizations, philanthropic organizations, financial institutions and the private sector — and homeless people themselves, he said.  He concluded by expressing confidence that China will be able to overcome the novel coronavirus outbreak “very soon”.

DANIEL PERELL, Chairperson of the NGO Committee on Social Development, said humanity rises or falls as a single global family, and that the good of the part is achieved by working for the good of the whole.  However, the United Nations is characterized by a culture of negotiation in which national interests are paramount.  Such an approach may have been appropriate 75 years ago, but it is seeing its limits today in the face of myriad challenges.  Emphasizing that the Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development gave voice to the well-being of those who had previously received little attention, he said change requires robust transformation.  Arrangements of all kinds need to be reimagined in the interest of humanity.  On behalf of the NGO Committee, he requested the Commission to adopt a clear and universal definition of homeless that would make it possible to measure and analyse homelessness in given areas.  He also proposed the establishment of standardized measurements of homelessness in response to a shortage of reliable data and research on the problem.

OLIVIA TAN JIA YI, a member of the Yale International Relations Association, speaking on behalf of the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth, said the last 15 years have seen important development strides, including a 38 per cent drop in poverty.  “We celebrate these achievements, but are also aware of the growing inequalities, slow progress and deeply rooted issues that systematically put profit over people and the planet,” she said.  Calling for a renewed ambition and sense of urgency to reverse that trend, she pointed out that in 2018 countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) saw a 34 per cent housing cost overburden rate, and low-income private tenants were estimated to be spending on average more than 40 per cent of their income on rent.  Some OECD States also saw a worrying increase in youth homelessness and rising rates of homelessness among families with children.  Meanwhile, concerns are also increasing over such crucial issues as the global climate emergency, public health challenges and rising political divisions.

Expressing concern that countries only spend 20 per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on social protection schemes, she underlined the urgency of addressing housing as a critical issue affecting the world’s young people.  “A roof over our heads and four solid, warm walls are not a human luxury, but a necessity for a fulfilling life and decent livelihoods,” she said.  Decent housing should be accessible and affordable to youth, children and people of all socioeconomic classes.  Indeed, without a secure environment, young people find it harder to develop emotional resilience, physical health and peace of mind.  “These costs, slowly building, snowball into lowered economic productivity, social malaise and perhaps most regrettably a defeated and distressed generation,” she said, calling on States to urgently invest in the security of the world’s young people.  Failure to do so will haunt the world for future generations, she warned, spotlighting the potential benefits of robust social protection policies, and funding for higher education, skills development and nutritious food.  “The goal of these policies is simple — to provide every child with the same starting line, a fair chance in life no matter what circumstances they were born into,” she said.

Introduction of Reports

DANIELA BAS, Director, Division for Social Policy and Development of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, introduced several documents related to the Commission’s work.  Drawing attention to the Secretary-General’s report on “Affordable housing and social protection systems for all to address homelessness” (document E/CN.5/2020/3), she said it contains an overview of housing trends in both developed and developing countries and explores the drivers of homelessness.  Spotlighting such driving factors as personal and family circumstances and the impacts of the global climate crisis, she said the report focuses in particular on the most vulnerable groups.  It encourages Member States to develop comprehensive, intersectional strategies and specific interventions to address homelessness while improving access to affordable housing and addressing the rising commercialization of housing.

Turning to the Secretary-General’s report “Social dimensions of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development” (document E/CN.5/2020/2), she said it addresses progress and gaps in reducing poverty and achieving sustainable development in Africa.  It also explores synergies between the 2030 Agenda and the African Union’s Agenda 2063, calling among other things for sound governance and the provision of public goods and services, including universal health coverage and social protection floors.

Meanwhile, she said, the Secretary-General’s report on “Modalities for the fourth review and appraisal of the implementation of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing, 2002” (document E/CN.5/2020/4) provides an overview of the modalities for that meeting and addresses the increasingly important trend of ageing around the globe.  His report titled “Implementation of the objectives of the International Year of the Family and its follow-up processes” (document A/75/61-E/2020/4) highlights recent trends related to families, with a focus on homelessness and how it impacts them.  Noting that homelessness is sometimes temporary but can also become chronic, she said the report describes cash transfers as key to reducing poverty in single-parent households — which are often headed by women.  There is also a growing recognition that cash transfers should be backed by broader investments in education, health, childcare and affordable housing, she said.

Finally, she said, the Secretary-General’s report titled “Twenty-five years of the World Summit for Social Development:  addressing emerging societal challenges to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” (document E/CN.5/2020/5) reviews global megatrends since the 1995 Copenhagen Summit, with a focus on issues relevant to the Commission’s 2020 theme.  In particular, she recalled the three core objectives identified by the Summit — namely, poverty eradication, the promotion of productive employment and decent work for all and social inclusion — and noted that the report explores how they intersect with such recent global shifts as climate change and evolving technology.


VESNA BEDEKOVIĆ, Minister for Demography, Family, Youth and Social Policy of Croatia, speaking on behalf of the European Union, said homelessness is on the rise in most of the bloc’s member States.  Through its European Pillar of Social Rights, the Union promotes the reintegration of homeless people into society by means of enabling social services.  It supports member States in implementing preventative policies that produce long-term social and economic benefits, including lower public expenditure.   While youth unemployment in the Union has declined to 14.2 per cent, it is still more than double the overall rate, with certain groups of young people at a disproportionate advantage.  Technological change is also bringing new challenges, she said, emphasizing that the bloc will reinforce its Youth Guarantee framework to keep it in line with changing labour markets.  She noted that the European Commission will in 2020 propose a new European Gender Equality Strategy and publish a green paper on ageing, together with the results of a review of the European Disability Strategy 2010-2020.  She expressed hope that the European Consensus on Development will remain a key instrument for supporting social development worldwide.

RUDOLPH MICHAEL TEN-POW (Guyana), speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said the 1995 World Summit augured an historic consensus on the need to put people at the centre of development.  The 2030 Agenda aims to ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing — as well as basic services — and to upgrade slums.  Regrettably, and notwithstanding the significant inroads made in addressing homelessness, statistics reveal that the phenomenon’s prevalence has progressively increased in the past decade.  “Data also confirm that homelessness is one of the most glaring symptoms of lack of access to education, health and productive employment, inequality and social exclusion,” he said.  Calling for a consideration of the multiple causes and consequences of homelessness — as well as the challenges faced by homeless persons — he stressed that poverty reduction should remain the international community’s highest priority — especially in light of the impacts of climate change, food insecurity, armed conflict, slowing global economic growth, humanitarian emergencies and global health threats.  He underlined the importance of scaling up South-South and triangular cooperation and mobilizing resources through official development assistance (ODA), while asking all Member States to work together in a spirit of responsibility, transparency, solidarity and cooperation to tackle such emerging challenges as the novel coronavirus.

VITAVAS SRIVIHOK (Thailand), speaking on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and aligning himself with the Group of 77, said the bloc has advanced economic growth through vibrant trade and investment.  Addressing rapid urbanization requires intersectoral policy frameworks and housing strategies, he said, pointing to the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (2012), which recognizes that every person has the right to adequate living standards — including adequate and affordable housing.  The Sociocultural Community Blueprint 2025, along with the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025, are the main mechanisms directing efforts to foster sustainable urbanization.  At the same time, rural livelihoods are promoted through the ASEAN Framework Action Plan on Rural Development and Poverty Eradication 2016-2020, which helps poor households access productive natural resources, financial support and social protections.  The 2018 Declaration on Strengthening Social Protection, meanwhile, fosters access to vocational training and other such resources, he said, underscoring ASEAN’s commitment to raising living standards and empowering people to address future challenges.

BOCCHIT EDMOND, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Worship of Haiti, speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and associating himself with the Group of 77, noted that progress has been made in reducing poverty since the 1995 World Summit for Social Development, pointing out, however, that inequality has persisted.  If left unaddressed, it will create further challenges, such as homelessness.  While inequality and poverty are among the foremost causes of homelessness, the adverse effects of climate change can also displace people from homes for a prolonged period.  Small island developing States are vulnerable to natural hazards such as earthquakes and storms.  In recent times, they obliterated homes and social infrastructure, wiped out agricultural land and hampered essential services, causing instant economic losses exceeding 100 per cent of GDP.  Expressing concern that the Secretary-General’s report indicated disasters stemming from natural hazards have displaced an average of almost 24 million people each year over the last decade and damaged more than 9 million homes between 2005 and 2017, he said that the Community’s member States are making ongoing efforts to build resilience, guided by the CARICOM Strategic Plan 2015-2019, Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2030 Agenda, Paris Agreement on climate change, Addis Ababa Action Agenda and the New Urban Agenda.  But “we cannot do it alone,” he said, stressing the need for partnerships.

MARIA DE JESUS DOS REIS FERREIRA (Angola), speaking on behalf of the African Group, and associating herself with the Group of 77, said homelessness is mainly driven by structural causes, including inequalities and poverty among and within countries.  In developing countries, poverty — especially rural poverty — is the main driver of homelessness, with a lack of employment opportunities and more frequent extreme weather events leaving many with no choice but to migrate to cities.  She expressed concern that 23.5 per cent of the world’s urban population lived in slums in 2018, a number that is projected to increase, with Africa and Asia accounting for nearly 60 per cent of the increase.  With the number of those living in inadequate housing estimated to reach 3 billion by 2030, and with sub-Saharan Africa facing a shortage of 3.4 million affordable housing units, there is a need to develop data to identify the homeless and ensure they are included in official statistics.  The structural causes of homelessness should meanwhile be addressed through partnerships as well as policy interventions that distinguish between chronic and transitional homelessness.  She went on to stress the way that climate change has heightened the risk of disaster-related displacement and homelessness.  While emergency shelters and temporary housing are crucial, relocation assistance for transition to permanent housing should be provided as soon as possible, she said, urging the international community to honour its development commitments.

CYNTHIA MAMLE MORRISON, Minister for Gender, Children and Social Protection of Ghana, associating herself with the Group of 77 and the African Group, outlined her country’s strides towards eradicating poverty as well as gaps that remain.  Citing strong economic growth and proactive Government policies, she said Ghana’s poverty and extreme poverty incidence declined from 56.5 per cent and 18.2 per cent in 2002-2003 to 23.4 per cent and 8.2 per cent, respectively, in 2016-2017.  The Government recently launched a programme to build 250,000 affordable housing units and introduced a national credible mortgage regime.  Among other things, it is working to bridge development gaps between inner cities and “zongo” communities and plans to build a 600-bed hostel for migrant workers outside Accra.  Outlining policies related to protection for older persons, affirmative action schemes and support for non-governmental organizations, she said they are based on the principles of solidarity, universality, sustainability, adequacy and participation.  In addition, about 1.4 million out of the 2.4 million Ghanaians currently living in extreme poverty are beneficiaries of the country’s flagship cash transfer programme, known as Livelihood Empowerment against Poverty (LEAP), she said.

ARIELA LUNA FLOREZ, Minister for Development and Social Inclusion of Peru, said her country is rolling out a project to use new technology to improve the heating of homes in sparsely populated areas at altitudes of more than 3,000 metres.  Warmer homes are part of Peru’s social protection system, she said, explaining how the project also helps to create jobs and thus reduce poverty.  The goal is to build homes that are affordable, sustainable and which improve the quality of life of their occupants.

AINO-KAISA PEKONEN, Minister for Social Affairs and Health of Finland, associating herself with the European Union, said the Government is committed to halving homelessness during its term, and ending it by 2027.  It will carry out measures to decrease the carbon footprint of housing and improve energy efficiency of the existing building stock.  “Governments are responsible to secure affordable housing for all,” she said.  “Markets alone, especially without regulation, will not be able to do it.”  The right to social protection for all must be included in the Commission’s mandate and agenda.  During Finland’s presidency of the European Union in 2019, the Government introduced the “Economy of Well-being” concept, underlining the mutually reinforcing nature of well-being and economic development, as investing in better health, education, employment, gender equality and social protection fosters sustainable economic growth.  Youth delegate YURI BIRJULIN added that homelessness among young people is on the rise and can easily go unnoticed.  It is the most radical form of social marginalization and among the most serious problems facing youth globally, he said, adding that issues leading to homelessness can be prevented through comprehensive health and youth inclusion policies.

YULIA SOKOLOVSKA, Minister for Social Policy of Ukraine, associating herself with the European Union, said her Government recently signed a decree committing to implement the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.  National social policy is aimed at minimizing and overcoming difficult circumstances, including those caused by lack of housing, and a social support system for vulnerable groups is in place.  The State provides apartments for orphaned children and those deprived of parental care.  One significant challenge is providing housing for internally displaced persons who have fled an armed aggression of the Russian Federation and participants in an anti-terrorist operation in Donbas.  Recalling the 2017 introduction of a cash compensation mechanism supporting 2,800 families, she also described a step-by-step social reintegration model aimed at identifying, registering and sheltering homeless people and connecting them with work opportunities.  The final step of the plan is to obtain housing — either private or social — and a review is under way to ensure that social housing is affordable, she said.

ILDEMARO VILLARROEL ARISMENDI, Minister for Housing and Habitat of Venezuela, associating himself with the Group of 77, said poverty and inequality are the main causes of conflict around the globe.  Calling for the promotion of new, sustainable social models that are truly people-centred, he said Venezuela was recognized as a swift adopter of the Millennium Development Goals and is now working to implement the Sustainable Development Goals.  The country transformed its patterns of capitalist production into a more inclusive, people-owned economic model.  Among other things, it eradicated illiteracy entirely in 2005, and now provides some 2.5 million metric tons of food to more than 7 million families each month to protect against the negative impacts of the unilateral coercive measures imposed by the United States against Venezuela.  Noting that the provision of housing is a cornerstone of the country’s social protection polices, he pointed out that the Government has provided more than 3 million housing units in nine years’ time.  Meanwhile, the United States through its sanctions has stolen more than $30 billion from his country and wields food and medicine as weapons of economic warfare in a bid to impose its national interests, in contravention of Venezuela’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, he said.

Mr. EDMOND (Haiti), speaking in his national capacity, said his country has limited means to address social development.  Over the past decade, Haiti has been subjected to natural hazards that exasperated its political, economic and social situation.  Underscoring the President of Haiti’s efforts to fight corruption, he said the country’s political instability has deep-rooted causes and remains a major impediment to national reconstruction.  In response, the President is promoting an inclusive national dialogue to address Haiti’s problems in their complexity.  High unemployment and social insecurity characterize Haiti today and the responses can be neither sporadic nor based on immediate solutions, he said, emphasizing the need for strengthened international support that is aligned with national priorities.

ANDREI DAPKIUNAS Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Belarus, describing homelessness as a failure of society, said his country does not have a big homeless problem nor does it have any homeless children.  Ninety-two per cent of the population has accommodation, which is a constitutional right.  Accessible housing is an important State priority and a basic element for preventing homelessness, he said, adding that building family housing is an important socioeconomic priority.  Guaranteeing accessibility requires close State monitoring of construction costs and financial support.  He went on to emphasize that housing must also be safe and comfortable, adding that green construction methods can also contribute to climate security.

Panel Discussion

In the afternoon, the Commission held a high-level panel discussion on the priority theme “Affordable housing and social protection systems for all to address homelessness”.  Moderated by Louise Casey, Chair of the Institute of Global Homelessness, it featured keynote presentations by Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland, and Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). 

Six panellists delivered remarks:  Aino-Kaisa Pekonen, Minister for Social Affairs and Health of Finland; Laura-Maria Crăciunean-Tatu, Associate Professor at the Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, Romania, and Vice President of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Dennis P. Culhane, Dana and Andrew Stone Chair in Social Policy, University of Pennsylvania, and the former Director of Research at the National Center on Homelessness among Veterans, the United States Department of Veterans’ Affair; Marissa Plouin, Housing Policy Analyst, OECD; Emeka Obioha, Professor of Sociology in the Department of Social Sciences and Research Chair, Faculty of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at Walter Sisulu University, South Africa; and Jean Quinn, Executive Director of UNANIMA International and Co-Chair of the Non-Governmental Organization Working Group to End Homelessness. 

Ms. MCALEESE, delivering her keynote address, said that today’s theme is a priority to many people around the world but still struggles to reach the top of Government agendas.  “There is hope and reassurance in this gathering,” she said, noting that the objective of today’s panel discussion is to explore the working strategies and best practices to achieve the 2030 Agenda — including access to safe and affordable housing for all.  Emphasizing that housing is a right, she said Governments that fail to prioritize it leave their children exposed to unnecessary trauma “as they try to ride out storms that are not of their making” but that instead are due to such forces as poverty, climate change and volatile economic markets.  Outlining Ireland’s history with homelessness, she recalled that it once had a large population of “rough sleepers” — mostly men, with poor social support structures and personal troubles — who were often regarded as authors of their own misfortune and overlooked by society.  Later came waves of asylum-seekers from abroad, for which Ireland was unprepared.  Charities were the first to sounds the alarm about the challenges of homelessness, she said, drawing attention to another spike in Ireland’s homeless population — which grew by almost 150 per cent between 2014 to 2018. 

Describing some of their challenges and stories, she said that many homeless people around the world today are not on the street, but neither are they in their own homes.  In Ireland, there are also thousands of asylum seekers living in “direct provision centres” and receiving financial support on a temporary basis.  While that system is controversial, it has nonetheless helped to reduce lengthy queues and backlogs.  People allowed to remain in Ireland permanently immediately face a massive housing squeeze.  Noting that recent polls find that most the Irish population is in favour of addressing homelessness and housing as a priority, she stressed that homelessness must not mean unending hopelessness.  Ireland is proud of its successful emergence from the recent global financial crisis and its diverse and dynamic population.  Recounting her own brief encounter with homelessness during the early years of the Northern Irish Troubles, she said: “It was enough to carve an enduring memory of the chaos and fear of life lived off the grid.”  Indeed, tens of millions around the world live in a precarious limbo, relying on strangers and easily lost in a sea of numbers, and Governments have no chance of addressing other development challenges if they cannot consign homelessness to history.

Ms. SHARIF, delivering keynote remarks in a video message, said that she is currently in Abu Dhabi at the 2020 World Urban Forum — a meeting which shares many priorities with this year’s session of the Commission on Social Development.  Welcoming the longstanding partnership between the Department of Economic and Social Affairs and UN-Habitat, she added that housing issues are high on the priorities of the 2030 Agenda.  “The future of sustainable urbanization depends on how policy-makers prioritize housing,” she stressed, emphasizing that housing “is not just about a roof” but about human rights.  Poverty and inequality — also central issues in sustainable development — are two of the main drivers of homelessness, she said, adding that they are also related to the human right not to suffer from cruel and inhumane conditions.  “Homelessness is a societal failure, rather than an individual one,” she stressed.

Noting that homelessness exists around the world in both developed and developing countries, she said that a recent UN-Habitat report aims to collect input from various experts involved in protecting and promoting housing rights around Sustainable Development Goal 11.  Among other challenges, it addresses such driving factors as environmental disasters, conflict and unprecedented migrant flows.  In that context, she emphasized the need to address the phenomenon holistically, stressing that housing entails “more than four walls”.

Ms. CASEY said that she has worked in homelessness for more than 30 years, including as “homelessness czar” under Prime Minister Tony Blair.  In her country, homelessness was defined as “rough sleepers” who literally sleep on the pavement.  Definitions of homelessness may very from country to country, however.  She added that the United Kingdom does a good job of collecting and reviewing homelessness data, but sadly many other countries have no definition, framework or measurement.  Solving homelessness requires reliable data and good information to know how to implement targeted and comprehensive solutions and to know if those solutions are achieving good outcomes.  Even if all the Sustainable Development Goals make headway, the homeless on the street will be most at risk of being left behind.  “We have to make everyone count,” she said, emphasizing the importance of a definition, a framework and a means of measuring homelessness in its own right.

Ms. PEKONEN said that the Government of Finland wants to eradicate homelessness by 2027 through a “Housing First” approach that focuses on making housing advice more readily available while also preventing homelessness, particularly among young people and migrants.  Statistics on homelessness can be collected through existing national databases.  She explained that Finland’s approach is based on a simple idea:  to give people permanent housing and support as soon as they become homeless.  When someone has a secure roof over their head, it is easier for them to focus on their other problems.  She emphasized that housing one long-term homeless person can save €15,000 in social funds per year, and that in Tampere city, housing with intensified support has reduced demand for social and health-care services by half.  Ending homelessness not only the ethically correct thing, but also economically sustainable, she added.

Ms. CRĂCIUNEAN-TATU discussed the applicability of the human rights-based methodology in the context of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, emphasizing that that instrument sets a normative framework for addressing housing issues.  Four if not all of its tenets are applicable in cases involving homelessness, she said, including the identification of marginalized and disadvantaged groups, refraining from legislative and other policy measures that would deprive citizens of their rights, the obligation of States parties to ensure access to legal mechanisms, and their obligation to adopt preventative steps to protect people against violations of their Covenant rights by private parties.  She went on to summarize two quasi-judicial decisions by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights dealing with housing issues, including the eviction of tenants.  Homelessness must be seen and addressed as a violation of human rights, namely the right to adequate housing, she stressed.

Mr. CULHANE shared two distinct stories of homelessness in the United States.  One began in 2009, when former President Barack Obama’s Government embarked on an aggressive programme tackling street homelessness.  That strategy involved the provision of permanent housing — including funding about 90,000 housing vouchers for veterans — as well as the mobilization of popular community support.  As a result, the number of veterans experiencing homelessness in the United States dropped by 50 per cent in just eight years.  Despite those positive trends, however, a second story is now unfolding in many cities on the United States West Coast, as well as in Washington, D.C., and New York City.  Citing a failure in the housing market and the inability of the Government to address it, he pointed to a major supply-side challenge in a country where 97 per cent of housing is private.  There are also challenges on the social protection side of the equation, he said, pointing out that when people in the United States lose their jobs or suffer a disability, most are not eligible for Government housing assistance.  Meanwhile, the country’s Earned Income Tax Credit does not reach any single adults without dependent children, and even support for eligible families remains woefully inadequate.

Ms. PLOUIN, outlining the findings of a recent OECD report including cross-country comparison data, said homelessness is difficult to measure and even more difficult to compare.  Countries share no common definition of homelessness and count people in different living circumstances differently.  Many cities across the world carry out street homelessness counts, which present a snapshot in time but do not shed light on trends or “hidden homeless” populations.  Outlining the report’s data in light of such caveats, she said that across the OECD people can be either chronically or sustainably homeless — a smaller and more visible share of the overall homeless population — while others are temporarily or transitionally homeless.  Calling for solutions that address a range of driving factors, she spotlighted a rise in youth homelessness in Australia, Ireland and New Zealand and increasing family homelessness in England.  In Canada and New York City, senior homelessness is on the rise.  Homelessness has increased in recent years in about a third of OECD countries, while it has declined in about a quarter of them.  Agreeing with other speakers that countries should commit to collecting and using better data, she said that only 17 of 42 OECD countries have national plans to combat homelessness and many employ a patchwork of solutions.  “We can do better,” she said.

Mr. OBIOHA said that homelessness is a huge problem which straddles all continents and affects everyone, directly or indirectly.  Care must be taken, however, in the way that homelessness is framed, as its definition in developed countries may not be the same in developing States.  Most worrying in sub-Saharan Africa is the conflagration between homelessness and related conditions.  Projecting an image of a thatched house in an African village, he said that such a family may be living in inadequate housing, but it does not represent homelessness like someone who is sleeping on the streets.  He added that most data on homelessness is “not really hardcore” and that homelessness never gets its own chapter in national censuses.  According to available estimates, Nigeria has 24.4 million homeless people, while about 100,000 people are homeless in Togo’s capital city of Lomé.  In Kenya, about 2 million people were homeless in 2012, while in South Africa, some 200,000 people were thought to be living on the streets in various cities and towns.  Africa urgently needs affordable housing because more than 50 per cent of its people are living in substandard conditions.  The good news, however, is that several African countries have embarked on affordable housing programmes.  In Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana and some other countries, employers are required to provide their workers with housing allowances, he said, adding that free housing is also available in South Africa.

Ms. QUINN said that States are failing to meet their obligations to provide housing as a basic human right, leaving homelessness as one of the most devastating cross-cutting issues faced by the global community.  Family homelessness is a growing social problem, with more than 73 million families lacking decent shelter in India alone, in line with global trends.  Yet family homelessness is poorly documented at the global level, both quantitatively and qualitatively.  Underscoring the plight of homeless women, children and girls, she said that with no formal address, they often struggle to obtain even the most basic services, such as education and health care.  Often ignored is the fact that homeless women tend to seek shelter from relatives, friends and acquaintances, only turning to homeless services when informal options run out.  In Australia, recent studies indicate that older women are the fastest-growing homeless demographic, she said.  For children, homelessness can lead to acute physical and mental health problems.  She emphasized the need for a human rights approach of homelessness that includes a globally agreed definition of the phenomenon.

As the floor was opened for comments and questions, the representatives of several countries shared their national experiences with homelessness, outlining a range of driving factors as well as strategies aimed at tackling the phenomenon.

The Vice-Minister for Women, Family and Human Rights of Brazil said her country’s housing policy is guided by the principle of universal access.  Housing — as well as health care and access to public services — is a federal right guaranteed to all 220 million Brazilians by the Constitution, she said, also spotlighting the country’s Bolsa Familia financial assistance programme and a new pilot programme targeting the cycle of street homelessness.

The Minister for Housing and Habitat of Venezuela said that his country’s social protection system is the product of approaches that prioritize the population’s well-being.  Underscoring the country’s focus on housing as a human right, rather than a commodity, he described a range of high-impact, innovative social policies.  Thirty-five per cent more housing has been built to date and access is provided to the neediest on a priority basis, he said, pledging that the United States’ unilateral coercive economic measures will not succeed in derailing such important development strides.  Noting that the final cost of housing is an important factor, he asked Mr. Obioha how to best address the challenge of speculative land prices.

Responding, Mr. OBIOHA said that some countries in sub-Saharan Africa have enacted measures to assist those who cannot pay for homes — especially in terms of down payments.  Others have regulated interest rates.  While markets are left intact, “the poorest of the poor are not just left out in the wind”, he said.

The representative of the European Union agreed with the panellists that a common definition of homelessness — and the availability of more reliable data — would be useful.  He asked them to comment on how they would help countries achieve Sustainable Development Goal 11.

Ms. PLOUIN, responding to that question, said that — even in the absence of a shared definition — a broad commitment by States to use a common typology would be helpful as countries work to achieve Goal 11.

The representative of Morocco agreed with the panellists that prevention of homelessness is crucial and asked them to elaborate on effective prevention strategies.  She also asked them to address the situation of homelessness in the Arab world and the specific phenomenon of homelessness among children.

To that, Ms. QUINN responded that it is crucial to examine the driving factors that lead people to become homeless.  A focus on children is also critical, she said, noting that UNANIMA will launch a programme on 11 February examining both quantitative and qualitative data exploring what it is like for children and young people who experience homelessness.

Ms. CASEY said that while children around the world suffer homelessness in different ways, they must always be prioritized by their Governments.

Ms. PEKONEN, speaking to the issue of prevention, called for political will at the highest levels of Government.  In Finland, efforts to end homelessness are based on joint efforts by national and local leaders as well as the systematic introduction of social protection schemes and affordable housing.

Mr. OBIOHA echoed the need to root out the causes of homelessness, noting with regret that Government efforts too often focus on macroeconomic causes rather than specific driving factors.

A representative of the non-governmental organization International Longevity Centre Global Alliance spotlighted the opportunities presented by technology to track and better understand homelessness.  She asked the panellists how they believe data systems can be better used to reflect the urgency of the problem and how to utilize technology more effectively.

Mr. CULHANE responded that relatively simple technology already exists to share data and ensure real-time client care coordination.  Clients can use text messaging and applications to stay connected with care professionals, he said, citing the example of medication reminders.

A representative of the New Future Foundation asked the panellists who should be held responsible for reinforcing the rights of elderly people and others against predatory lending practices and mortgage fraud.

To that, Ms. CRĂCIUNEAN-TATU responded that a human rights-based approach to homelessness is crucial and suggested that States consider imposing a responsibility on judges to consider the risk of homelessness in their decisions. 

Also speaking was a representative of Senegal, as well as speakers from the Loretto Community and ATD Fourth World Movement.


*     The 1st Meeting was covered in Press Release SOC/4879 of 21 February 2019.

For information media. Not an official record.