The COVID-19 Response to Homelessness: A newfound commitment that must last beyond the pandemic

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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The Story So Far

In recent months, much attention has turned to what can and should be done about homelessness during this crisis period. It bears reminding that this level of urgency and attention should arguably be the norm, and the issues exposed by COVID-19 are by no means new for those directly affected or those working in the sector.  

However, the kinds of responses required by the outbreak have revealed gaps in our social protection systems to a wider public. The outbreak has laid bare social protection structures often heavily reliant on a large voluntary workforce, as well as the extreme vulnerability that a prolonged situation of homelessness inevitably leads to because of weakened immune and respiratory systems. COVID-19 has also revealed  “invisible” homelessness, whether that’s homelessness rates obscured by the existence of indirect shelter such as Japan’s internet cafés, which have had to close, or the surge in demand in shelters as a result of sofa surfers no longer welcomed by their hosts.  

On the positive side, there has been significant mobilisation in response to the situation. Slowly but surely, governments and local authorities confirmed the age-old proverb that where there’s a will, there’s a way. Hotel rooms were block booked for self-isolation, and agreements were made with the short-term rental sector and large convention centres to increase availability of emergency accommodation. But although these measures were much needed, they remain a sticking-plaster solution with the built-in inevitability that hotels would eventually return to regular business, which is currently happening as lockdowns are lifted. If early claims of “solved” or “eradicated” street homelessness hinged on hotel rooms rather than homes, they are unlikely to stand the test of time.

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At EU-level, the European Commission has mobilised and adapted some of its funding instruments to respond to the crisis and its impacts on the most vulnerable. This includes the EU Solidarity Fund, amended to cover health emergencies; the “Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative”, a plan to use available cash reserves from the European Structural and Investments Funds to fight the crisis; and expanded eligibility criteria for the European Social Fund and the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived. In a show of hands-on solidarity, the European Parliament made one of its buildings available to host 100 homeless women. Its canteens are providing meals for distribution using some of its chauffeur-driven cars.

Some local- and national-level decision-makers are starting to show signs of longer-term commitments. For Alain Maron, Brussels’ Minister for Housing, a shift in mentality is needed for the post-COVID era: structural approaches, not temporary solutions, are the way forward. In the Netherlands, these words even carry a price tag to the tune of EUR 200 million for 2020-2021, intended to provide housing solutions for the homeless so that no one spends more than three months in a shelter. In France, Metropolitan Lyon is sketching an ambitious plan to ensure “zero returns to the streets”, which aims to provide accommodation to 1,500 people who have nowhere to go after confinement, and shift the overall homelessness strategy towards a Housing First approach.

What Needs to Happen Going Forward: Hopes for a Post-Pandemic World

Although there have been efforts to address homelessness during this pandemic, much remains to be done. In the short term, it is imperative to “test, test, test” early and often, in community facilities where many belong to high-risk groups and the risk of transmission is high. This includes care homes, prisons and shelters. Along with testing comes triage, treatment and access to isolation. In the medium term, it must become clearer what will happen to those in emergency accommodation once lockdowns are lifted. As hotels that have been housing the homeless during lockdown re-open for business, alternatives must be secured to ensure no one is forced to return to the streets. In view of the oncoming recession, states must also act preventively to avoid a massive influx of homelessness. The United Kingdom District Councils’ Network has warned that half a million households could be at risk of homelessness if the country’s eviction moratorium were to end. It is imperative for Member States to develop integrated homelessness strategies that include both preventive measures as well as rapid and sustainable re-housing.

Find out more about the OECD Employment Outlook 2020 or read the full report

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As for the future, in the words of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, “Strengthening economic and social rights bolsters resilience for the long haul”. This means focusing not only on protecting rights, but also on actively promoting and fulfilling them. In the context of homelessness, existing social rights as laid out by the UN and the Council of Europe require states to adequately house the homeless, not as political choice or policy priority, but as legal obligation. Furthermore, not only should economic and social rights be strengthened, we should also insist on and promote a better understanding of their interdependence and indivisibility. The need for more and better housing, for example, can be arrived at from both a housing and health perspective: WHO Europe’s 2019 health equity status report concluded that the most cost-effective means of closing the health gap is to invest in housing and community facilities.

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Currently, government action on homelessness is being scrutinised in a way that is both exceptional and unlikely to persist over time. What happens once public and media attention falters, and who will be following up on adequate implementation of the myriad measures that have been announced? In its statement of interpretation on the right to protection of health in times of pandemic, the European Committee of Social Rights argued that, “Historic and ongoing shortcomings in state efforts to secure Charter rights such as the right to housing (Article 31) and the right to freedom from poverty and social exclusion (Article 30) feed directly into the vulnerability of particular social groups in a pandemic”. Unfortunately, this means that for every measure put in place in reaction to the outbreak, we must keep in mind all the policies that failed to be put in place in the many years preceding it, and continue to hold governments to account for such inaction. We know there’s a way, but under what conditions is there a will? Fast-forward some years from now, and the hindsight that it took a global pandemic for us to resolutely address homelessness would already be bad. The only thing that would be worse is looking back to realise even this was not enough. A return to business as usual is what we must guard against above all.

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