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

How can we ensure that economic recovery packages aim at eradicating homelessness? Banner image: Shutterstock/Ringo Chiu

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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 recognised 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 has been an unexpected, frightening experience bringing a lot of discomfort and uncertainty to daily life. But something that for the general public has been a temporary challenge can—for the most vulnerable people like the homeless—turn out to be a deadly tragedy. As the pandemic has lingered on, some paradoxical developments have evolved: at the same time there have been people who, because of repeated lockdowns and prolonged remote working, have been desperate to leave their houses, there are homeless people desperately trying to get in to a safe place you can call a home.

COVID-19 has laid bare the global housing crisis. In most countries the current pandemic has thrust homelessness services into crisis, and it has 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 places in homeless shelters.

Check out the updated OECD Housing Gateway for a wealth of data and work on housing including our new interactive policy action tool

Check out the updated OECD Housing Gateway for a wealth of data and work on housing including our new interactive policy action tool

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 fining homeless people for being in the wrong place, or clearing 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 reorganised to make social distancing possible. In March 2020, the United Kingdom government even urged local councils to house homeless people by the weekend following the announcement! As over 10,000 homeless people sleeping rough were given accommodation in empty hotels, it looked like there could be a fast track to solve homelessness; a year later this looks more like a missed opportunity. A recent report revealed that during the first year of pandemic in England alone at least 130,000 households were made homeless despite the ban on evictions.

The world is now slowly and hesitatingly opening up again, and we are entering the phase of post-pandemic recovery with 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 financial stimulus also be the catalyst for 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 that, before pandemic, ideologically couldn’t digest the idea of universal basic income. Could this financial stimulus also be the catalyst for global action to end homelessness? In building the economic recovery, actual building and construction can have a crucial role in creating economic activity.

Read the new OECD report Brick by Brick: Building Better Housing Policies, emphasising inclusiveness, efficiency and sustainability for the design of housing policies

Read the new OECD report Brick by Brick: Building Better Housing Policies, bringing together evidence, international experience and policy insights for the design of housing policies

This is a positive scenario. But more and more it looks like it will be business as usual. The global housing system is broken—and it still doesn’t recognise housing as a basic human right. Even the pandemic seems to offer financial predators more playground. The faults of the global housing system can’t be fixed by humble governance or gentle nudging of the housing markets.

We have been hopefully looking towards the vaccine roll outs as the virus is not fading away by itself. But even the case of vaccine has shown how stark and profound global inequality is. While some countries simply lack vaccines or can’t afford them, there are others in their well-maintained affluence where people have to be urged to get vaccines.

Likewise there is a vaccine against homelessness: it is called affordable social housing. But again, there are countries that are reluctant to recognise this. We know that homelessness can be ended by recognising housing as a basic human right, by providing affordable social housing and by implementing Housing First policy. What it requires more than ever is political leadership. Maybe some hopeful signs of a new awareness of our common destiny on this planet can be seen in the recent G7 Leaders’ communiqué: “Our shared agenda for global action to build back better”.

Yes, it is time to build.

Read the report "Housing amid COVID-19: Policy responses and challenges" and visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub to browse hundreds of policy responses

Visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub

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Juha Kaakinen

Chief Executive Officer, Y-Foundation

Juha Kaakinen  is Chief Executive Officer of Y-Foundation since 2013 (expert member of the Board of Y-Foundation 1986-2003), the biggest Finnish NGO acquiring flats from the private market for homeless people and providing social housing.

Juha holds a Master of Arts from the University of Helsinki. From 2008- 2012, he worked for the Finnish Ministry of the Environment as Program Leader of the National Program to reduce long-term homelessness 2008-2012. He was also the Secretary of the working Group of “Wise People” appointed by the Ministry of Housing to formulate the basic principles for the Homelessness Reduction Program. From 1990- 2011, he was CEO of Sosiaalikehitys Oy (Social Development Ltd), a Research and Development Company owned by 11 municipalities).

Juha has written over 50 research papers, articles and evaluation reports on social services, employment projects and policies and homelessness issues.