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.
"Remedial measures and prevention should go hand in hand."
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.