Europe's homeless brave the cold, and they're not migrants

Half of those who died living on the streets of Brussels held Belgian nationality and their average age was 51.

By Jon Van Housen & Mariella Radaelli (Euroscope)

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Published: Sun 20 Jan 2019, 8:37 PM

Last updated: Sun 20 Jan 2019, 10:44 PM

Europe appears the absolute epitome of affluence: The Riviera, jet-set ski resorts, fabulous Monte Carlo villas, and nucleus of iconic luxury brands such as BMW, Ferrari, Prada and Louis Vuitton. But scratch the surface a little and you will see the continent is also home to extreme poverty. Millions of people in Europe are homeless.
By their very way of life, the homeless are hard to quantify. Off the radar of government agencies and outside social service systems, many live a life of furtive survival, perhaps staking a claim at a park bench or stairwell. They might be known to area locals, but they are largely outside the working world and its databases.
A study last year found that Finland was the only country in Europe where homelessness is not on the rise. The European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (Feantsa) and the French Abbe Pierre Foundation found that differences in metrics used by countries make statistics difficult, but a stark picture of homelessness emerged.
"This past year has resolutely confirmed the existence of another Europe: a Europe not merely ignored but also misunderstood, not just despised but also forgotten - a Europe of the homeless," the report says, noting that growing homelessness has also overwhelmed support systems and put increased pressure on emergency services. "In Finland, they treat homelessness as a housing problem and have committed to providing affordable and supported housing," notes the report by Feantsa. "In particular they use a model that treats housing as a right and not a reward for good behaviour." 
Other than in Finland, the report says politicians across the EU have shown "profound ignorance" toward the homeless. Children are now becoming the largest group in emergency shelters.
A range of country reports and media stories perhaps help flesh out the reality better than large-scale empirical data. In Ireland, 3,333 children were homeless and more than 78,000 households were in temporary accommodation at the end of 2017, while there was a 60 per cent increase in the number of children in emergency accommodation between 2011 and 2017 in Sweden.
At the end of last year, about 860,000 people in Germany were homeless: some 50,000 living on the street and the rest staying with friends or in emergency shelters. In Paris, 11 people who were living rough died last year during a winter cold snap due to hypothermia, chronic disease and addiction. Last spring, Brussels held a commemoration to remember the 62 homeless people who died while living on the streets in the capital of the European Union. Kris Roels from an organisation called Collective Street Deaths said "hypothermia isn't the most common cause of death - many homeless people die in hospital."
"People don't have a job and lack training. It gets them down," said Roels. Half of those who died living on the streets of Brussels held Belgian nationality and their average age was 51. The figure is telling: Though Europe has been hit with a surge in refugees from Africa and the Middle East, many of the homeless are native-born or from other EU countries.
Vulnerable people without up-to-date papers are not included in administrative data, in public service routes, or have access to government welfare programmes.
Their only option is to rely on voluntary assistance. Other survival strategies such as begging, undeclared work and squatting in empty buildings are seen as a nuisance and criminalised. The Feantsa study says housing is the basic step in addressing the problem. It calls for direct access to housing for every individual without a home based on principles followed in Finland.
But governments and organisations have to work to stop people in fragile economic and social situations from falling into exclusion - starting in childhood - through policies that focus on prevention and reducing economic, educational and social inequality. A permanent residence with a rental contract gives a greater sense of security and a possibly more balanced life. The home is the foundation for solving other problems. And this basic need clearly resonates today. As policymakers formulate a range of plans to save energy and residents grapple with paying utility bills, everyone knows that it's cold in Europe right now.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are editors at news agency in Milan

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