Homelessness takes many more forms than the people we see begging on the street. It was once considered to be exclusive to developing nations except for the occasional tramp here in Europe. It is mainly hidden, more often ignored, but look well enough and it is there. Brian Milne discusses.
On 4 December Ken Sweeney posted a letter to the editor of the Irish Times that essentially relates to Fine Gael TD Dara Murphy who has been living off the ‘fat of the land’ by having a fulltime job with the European People’s Party (EPP) at the same time as serving as a member of parliament in Ireland on the Europa United Le Club Facebook page. For two years he has been living in Brussels, yet collected €51,000 expenses on top of his €90,000 salary despite residing and working outside Ireland and attending the Irish parliament for only the minimum number of days.
That is, of course, not the whole story. So read the letter:
A tale of two cities
Sir, – I attended court with a young homeless boy who had been charged with theft of a bottle of orange, value €1.
Another homeless man was charged with theft of four bars of chocolate, value €3.
Another homeless man was charged with theft of two packets of Silk Cut cigarettes.
A TD, on his way to, or from, his full-time, very well paid job in Brussels, stops by at Dáil Éireann to sign in, so that he can collect his full €51,600 expenses for his attendance in the Dáil. – Yours, etc,
Fr PETER McVERRY SJ,
Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice,
He began with three homeless people. That is now the topic I wish to turn to.
What is this about?
In my younger days I worked with street children in developing countries. What people are always unaware of is the whole picture. Street children are seen as a tragedy but also romanticised into popular cinema such as in Pixote or Salaam Bombay, even if some stories have tragic ends, whereas that is only a partial picture. Where there are street children there are also adults on those streets, people without actual homes who sleep wherever they can under shelter but out of sight, in abandoned houses, factories, on friends’ or families’ floors and any number of other places. The invisible is many times larger than the visible. Homelessness takes many forms, but it is not exclusive to developing nations. It is with us here in Europe, sometimes hidden; other times ignored, but look well enough and it is there.
Before anything else it may be most helpful to define homelessness rather than simply implant the image of people living on the streets who can be seen in far too many urban shop doorways and other sheltered places. The UN Economic Commission for Europe Conference of European Statisticians (CES) Group of Experts on Population and Housing Censuses that met in Geneva in 2009 defined homelessness as follows:
In their ‘Recommendations for the Censuses of Population and Housing’, the CES identified homeless people within two broad groups: (a) Primary homelessness (or ‘rooflessness’ – for instance German ‘obdachlos’) which includes persons living in the streets without shelter that falls within the scope of living quarters; (b) Secondary homelessness which may include persons with no place of normal residence who move frequently between various types of accommodation that include abandoned, derelict or otherwise empty dwellings, shops and other building, shelters, and institutions for the homeless or other kinds of accommodation that includes places never previously intended to be used for inhabitation. It includes people living in private dwellings such as those of family or friends, but reporting ‘no usual address’ on census forms.
The CES acknowledged that their approach does not provide a full set of definitions of ‘homelessness’. One should also include the intent of Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 10 December 1948 that was adopted by the UN General Assembly:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
Recognition of the phenomenon
Homelessness is recognised and addressed differently country by country. The European Typology of Homelessness and Housing Exclusion (ETHOS) was developed as a method by which we comprehend and measure homelessness in Europe, thus provide a common language for transnational exchanges of data and knowledge on homelessness. That approach declares that homelessness is a process that affects numerous vulnerable individuals and households at different points in their lives. It was launched in 2005 to be used for different reason that include it being a basic framework for discussion, data collection, monitoring, media and, above all else, is shared for policy making across the continent. It is made up of an abstraction of existing legal definitions in the EU member states, that have been translated into 25 language but extends nominally beyond the strict confines of the EU to neighbouring and associate states.
The European Commission estimates in 2015 showed that there could then have been as many as 410,000 people sleeping rough or in emergency or temporary accommodation on any given night in the EU; a report at the beginning of 2019 showed this had increased to an estimated 700,000. It implied that almost seven million people each year face homelessness for periods of various duration using definitions described above. That makes the moral of the story of Dara Murphy’s ‘double life’ and its benefits all the more poignant, people were charged for committing offences that had more to do with survival than enrichment, yet a politician with presumably more than one high quality roof over his head suffers only censure.
Denial or shame?
Almost no country in Europe is ‘immune’ from the curse of homelessness, yet many, if not most, people turn their eyes away from what they see or even deny any knowledge of the situation. It is far too detailed an analysis or descriptive to go into, instead I am doing something we would normally not do, which is to offer a sample list of web links at the end of this article that tell the story for us. To try to make a picture that shows all countries would be overwhelming, therefore this allows choice of countries readers may wish to know about. They are a mixed selection of types of report in the EU 28 plus Norway and Switzerland, they cover a number of years so may not be accurate for the present, yet shows the reality of the situation rather than only numbers. It begins with a Guardian article I saw no more than half an hour before Ken posted the ‘Dara Murphy’ letter. Others I have selected mainly tell of the bigger, richer European states. Notably Norway has reduced their situation, Finland is dealing with it very well and Spain seems to have a very low number for its population size. Some claim to have none, although usually it is either few or simply not visible. Otherwise, it is not a positive picture. By the way, Dara Murphy resigned, somebody homeless cannot just do that.
Phil Ochs wrote ‘There but for Fortune’ in 1964, the second verse is:
Show me the alley, show me the train,
Show me a hobo who sleeps out in the rain,
And I’ll show you a young man with so many reasons why
There but for fortune, may go you or I, you and I.
It is a sentiment that the likes of Dara Murphy should learn and the many others in the political administration in all European countries.