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The homeless: a matter of urgency,a question of integration

"Remedial measures and prevention should go hand in hand."
Do the different forms of aid provided to the homeless really meet their needs? Are there any examples of "best practices" in this area? What type of social policy should be proposed to the European authorities responsible? These were some of the questions studied together by research institutes from Austria, Denmark, Italy, Finland and Greece, under the two-year-long EUROHOME project.


Fifty-seven million people throughout the European Union are living below the poverty line. Thirty-one million are dependent on social security. More than 17 million live in substandard or makeshift housing. 2.7 million homeless persons lead a nomadic existence, dependent on emergency solutions (friends, relatives, temporary furnished accommodation, social services), and 1.8 million must rely on hostels. Women and young people (18-25 year-olds) make up a growing number of the homeless . These figures are only approximate, since the sum total of the misery involved seems to represent a vast no man's land on which little serious research has been carried out.

Who are the homeless?
Who exactly are they, the homeless? It all depends on the continents, countries, cultures and social policies implemented to combat the poverty epitomised by homeless. The data available in this area are imprecise, the statistics not comparable and the research piece-meal. "In various European Union countries, people living in sheds, containers and stairways are classed as persons living in unconventional housing. Other countries include people living with friends or family members in basically decent conditions in the homeless category. The methods used for determining who falls in this category are often far from reliable," explains Dragana Avramov.

A sociologist, Dr Avramov is in charge of the EUROHOME project, which is supported under the European Commission's TSER (Targeted Socio-Economic Research) programme. Its aim? To help, through a better understanding of the problem of the homeless, to develop a policy to prevent this phenomenon on a European scale.

The researchers focused on four basic questions: (1) What is known about homelessness? What are the principal risk factors leading to the type of exclusion of which the homeless represent an extreme form? Do the social services really meet the needs of their clients? Is it possible to identify models of good practices in this area?

To each ...
Apart from the lack of comparable European data on the homeless, the researchers came up against another major stumbling-block in the course of their work, namely, the links between the various players - public bodies or voluntary associations - are generally very loose, and all too often we seem to witness the spawning of a plethora of services that are more competing than complementary.

The very heterogeneity of the homeless themselves hardly facilitates an approach to the problem. "We possess little information on survival strategies and on the creation of informal networks which may play a role in supporting particular individuals or, alternatively, in plunging them further into the abyss. Little is known about those homeless people who do not fall strictly within the categories to which the social services may assign them and who often slip through the net of official aid and rehabilitation programmes." While all the homeless may share the same poverty, they do not form a homogeneous group, and the reasons underlying their exclusion differ. "Over and above the misery and lack of housing, there are also family problems, questions of physical and mental health, drugs, alcohol, personal vulnerability, etc. It is therefore not enough to apply a generalised reintegration policy towards these people; what they need most is targeted measures."

However, made-to-measure solutions are rare. So too are prevention and monitoring. All too many social services have no choice but to intervene in an ad hoc fashion, seeking to alleviate suffering that has become more visible because a crisis has arisen. "But urgency breeds urgency and all too often ends up being regarded as a permanent state of affairs. Whereas remedial measures and prevention should go hand in hand."

Little is known about those homeless people who fall outside the categories devised by the social services.

... according to his
needs This type of approach, which not only responds to crisis situations but also evolves a long-term policy, is beginning to show its mettle, mainly in Northern Europe. In the Scandinavian countries, homeless people turning up at reception centres are met by a service concerned primarily with helping them to find made-to-measure solutions tailored to their individual needs (health, reintegration in the family, work, etc.). In the majority of cases, the first task is to find them somewhere to live and then to offer them ad hoc assistance in their own homes, not in institutions.

This policy - an example of good practice, if ever there was one - is possible thanks to a network of highly personalised services managed at local level and taking account of the needs of individuals.

It is not without good reason that, in Finland, the number of homeless persons (20 000 in 1987) has fallen by half in ten years. Some 18 000 subsidised apartments have been made available to the homeless, back-up assistance is offered and specific solutions are tailored to the needs of homeless families (of which the number has decreased by 70%). In Sweden, respect for the individual is the order of the day, and hostels open their doors to those who feel the need for them at a given moment, without any obligation to reintegrate.

The aftermath
But while such integration may be desirable, and while it may have already got under way, is it actually sustainable? In Denmark and Ireland, attempts to ensure the long-term monitoring of the fate of reintegrated homeless persons are beginning to gather pace.

For it is precisely here that the shoe often pinches. What are the results of the policies implemented? "To analyse the proposed solutions outside the social contexts in which they belong is to present a false picture. To evaluate correctly the positive results gathered by certain social services presupposes a knowledge of how the "clients" were selected in the first place and to what extent, in the medium term, their ensuing reintegration has been successful. Nothing is known about what becomes of the homeless once they have left the social services that originally received them or, where attempts at reintegration have been made, how these attempts have fared over time. What, for example, has become of these people after two years?"

It is along these lines that the EUROHOME researchers intend to pursue their work.

(1) The recent study entitled Coping with homelessness: issues to be tackled and best practices in Europe (Ashate Publishing), a collaborative venture involving 20 European and US researchers under the direction of Dragana Avramov, specifically summarises the work carried out under the EUROHOME project.



Project Title:  
Emergency and Transitory Housing for Homeless People: Needs and Best Practices

Targeted Socio-Economic Research Programme (TSER)

Contract Reference: SOE2-CT95-3002

CORDIS databaseFor more information on this project,
go to the Cordis database Record