There is a vaccine against homelessness: It's called affordable social housing

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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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Tackling Coronavirus (COVID-19): Contributing to a Global Effort

When the current COVID-19 epidemic really hit the world and was recognized as a pandemic, most countries sooner or later launched a simple advice or order of prevention: Stay at home. A simple and effective measure of precaution for those lucky ones who have a home, but not for the people experiencing homelessness.  For the general public COVID-19 is an unexpected, frightening experience bringing a lot of discomfort and uncertainty to daily life but it is also something which you can prepare for and manage with your own behavior. But something that for the general public is a temporary challenge can for the most vulnerable people, like the homeless, turn out to be a deadly tragedy.  As the pandemic seems to linger on some paradoxical developments evolve: at the same time there are people who because of repeated lockdowns and prolonged distant work are desperate to get out of their homes, and at the same time homeless people desperately trying to get in to a safe place you can call a home.

COVID-19 has laid the global housing crisis bare. In most countries the current pandemic has thrust homelessness services into crisis and it has also shown how extremely vulnerable the service system is if it mainly relies on temporary accommodation in shelters and hostels. In EU alone there are more than 500 000 bed places in homeless shelters.

Photo by Glenn Carrie

So far, the scale of emergency measures to protect the health of homeless people and workers helping them has been huge. At the other extreme, there are cities which have fined homeless people for being in the wrong place and have cleared encampments of homeless people sleeping rough forcing them to move to overcrowded shelters.  But there are also encouraging examples: some cities have reserved empty hotel beds for unsheltered homeless people and shelter facilities have been reorganized to make social distancing possible. In March the UK Government even urged local councils to house homeless people by the weekend! So it really could be possible to end homelessness with proper housing. What seems to be missing is a clear vision how to provide permanent housing and a concrete plan to implement.

Photo by Austin Kehmeier

Read more about how cities are protecting the homeless in their policy responses to COVID-19.

Although we are at the moment very much in the phase of survival and managing of the crisis it is necessary to look beyond to a post-COVID-19 world which undoubtedly will be in many respects a totally different world.  A global economic recession is unavoidable and as always it is the poor and low-income households that the recession hits the hardest.  There are different possible scenarios. In the worst case, inequality will rise and homelessness will increase dramatically especially in the countries which have neglected the supply of affordable housing. However, a more hopeful alternative scenario is also possible.

Could this already promised financial stimulus also be the catalyst for a global action to end homelessness?

As we have seen lately even quite drastic measures are possible in crises and unforeseen financing to aid the ailing economies have been promised and already introduced both from nation states and international financial institutions. We have even seen direct financial aid being paid to citizens in countries which ideologically before pandemic couldn’t digest the idea of universal basic income. Could this financial stimulus also be the catalyst for a global action to end homelessness? In building economic recovery actual building and construction can have a crucial role in creating economic activity.

A year ago on this same forum I called for compassion, but as we have entered the second year of pandemic it is obvious that much more is needed. We are hopefully looking for the roll out of vaccine as  the virus is not fading away by itself. Likewise there is a vaccine against homelessness:it is called affordable social housing. Now if ever is the time for national governments to shift focus from temporary accommodation to providing permanent affordable social housing. Now if ever is the time to implement  Housing First-principle  and housing-led strategies. Now if ever is the time to create a world that doesn’t accept inequality and homelessness.

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Tackling COVID-19 Housing

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Juha Kaakinen

Chief Executive Officer, Y-Foundation