Homelessness is a European problem — and a growing one. Finland is the only country on the Continent where the problem is believed to be receding, and that’s because of a nation-wide effort to give homes to the homeless.
POLITICO spoke with Freek Spinnewijn, director of the European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA) a Brussels-based NGO seeking to end homelessness in Europe. The interview has been edited for clarity and space.
How would you characterize efforts across Europe to end long-term homelessness?
Homelessness, including long-term homelessness is increasing in almost all member states, and in quite a few countries it is increasing rapidly. Ireland has seen family homelessness going through the roof, while France has seen the number of deaths in homeless shelters double in the last three years. In many countries it is an emergency, a social emergency.
In France there is political will to recognize the urgency of the problem.
The only country that has really done well in the European Union is Finland. It is the only country to my knowledge that has been able to consistently reduce homelessness over the last 10-15 years, especially chronic homelessness.
Are other countries trying Finland’s approach, to provide apartments and support for the homeless?
Other countries are trying to do the same. They call it the Housing First approach. In England, there are city-level attempts to introduce Housing First and bring it to some scale. But Finland has been doing Housing First for around 15 years. We should not have the illusion that we can solve homelessness, or drastically reduce it, in the time of a political mandate.
What is the situation in the bigger countries, like Germany and France?
In Germany they have a tendency to say that they manage homelessness so well in the shelter sector that there is not a problem anymore. There are high-quality, well-funded shelters, and street homelessness is relatively under control.
In France there is political will to recognize the urgency of the problem. France is one of the few countries where homelessness pops up in presidential election debates, for instance. But because of the size of the problem [in France], it is very difficult to actually make progress. There is a very big impact of undocumented migrants. If you don’t know how many homeless people there are in the country, it is very difficult to convince policy makers to reduce it by half, for example.
In general, the reflex is to address homelessness in the shelter system. Nobody is seeing the need to actually solve it.
Which countries are facing the biggest challenges?
The UK is one of the countries where the problem is really acute, and the speed of change is really concerning.
In a city like Manchester there is goodwill on the part of the mayor. But to make an actual shift in the approach to homelessness, while homelessness is increasing, is not easy. If you see a rise in street homelessness, your immediate reflex is to make sure people are not on the street. You need to take the time and sustain the approach over a longer period.
How much are countries in Europe learning from each other?
It is probably a bit piecemeal at the moment. Even with Housing First, every city seems to feel it has to carry out its own experiment before they can believe it works. There are dozens of experiments, some really sophisticated and sound, that are not used.
The potential for transnational learning is huge. The role for an organization like ours is to make that evidence available to a wider group of policy makers and NGOs. We see many cities and countries are experiencing the same problems.