31 / 03 / 2020

Vacant houses and millions of homeless at risk

With the spread of COVID-19, citizens around the world are being asked to stay home and follow strict hygiene rules. But what about people who don't have a home?





Martha Escudero, 42, lives in Los Angeles with her two daughters, age 8 and 10. The three of them are homeless. To be exact, until last Saturday they were homeless.

Last week, together with 33-year-old Ruby Gordillo and her three children (age 8 to 14), who had previously shared a room living in precarious conditions, and 73-year-old Benito Flores, who had lived in a van for years, they moved into a vacant house in the El Sereno neighborhood.

The house is owned by Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation. The state agency bought it years ago as part of an expansion plan of 710 Avenue, but it was never implemented and thus remained unused.

The initiative to occupy the house was taken in the context of a wider mobilization, called Reclaiming Our Homes. In the same week, homeless people from the wider area occupied a total of 12 vacant houses in the neighborhood, all of them belonging to Caltrans.

Faced with a housing and health crisis

The “squatters” and supporters of the initiative say they were inspired by the example of a group of homeless mothers in Oakland, now known as Moms 4 Housing.

Moms 4 Housing

On November 18, 2019, two mothers and their children occupied a house in Oakland – a city where there are four times as many empty homes as there are homeless people. Their goal was also to raise the state’s awareness regarding the housing crisis in the area.

The issue raised public awareness and the initiative gained mass support. So much so that just two weeks after their eviction on January 14, 2020, a community trust reached an agreement to purchase the house at market price from the development company that owned it, thus allowing the families to remain in the house.

But what are the reasons behind these latest initiatives?

The coronavirus crisis has brought California’s long-standing housing crisis to the forefront. It is estimated that one in four homeless people in the United States now live in California.

At the same time, California is among the states with the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Up until the day when the houses in El Sereno were occupied, more than 700 people had tested positive and at least 12 had died. Among them was the first homeless person to die in the United States from the virus.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA and Boston University found that in California there are approximately 150,000 homeless people. The total number of homeless in the US expected to die from the virus is 3,400. Of that number, more than 1,200 account for homeless in California expected to die from the virus.

“With this health crisis and this housing crisis, we need every vacant house to be a home for those who don’t have a safe and stable place to sleep in,” Gordillo explained, citing the reasons behind their initiative.

“Since the government’s not doing their job, we the people have to take power into our own hands,” Escudero said.

“Stay home” but where?

The instructions are clear. We need to wash our hands regularly, stay home as much as possible, and keep our distance from others.

But what about people who don’t have a home to stay in? In a recent Curbed article, a woman named Stephanie V is well aware of what she has to do, but finds it difficult to follow the instructions.

Stephanie has no home, she sleeps in her car with her dog and cat. “I can’t stock up on anything to get me through an extended period of illness,” she stated. She goes on to explain that she has to go out at least every two days to buy fresh food, as she does not have the ability to store anything that needs to be refrigerated or reheated.

“I also have to be able to wash my hands and use the toilet, which I can’t do in the car. And I have a dog that needs to be taken out, so even if I’m sick, I have to take care of her.”

More than half a million people in the United States today are in the same position as Stephanie V, Martha Escudero and the mothers from Oakland.

The US has hastened to earmark funds from the budget to utilize space (hotel rentals) for the homeless. However, the researchers of the study by the three American universities believe that more needs to be done.

“These are older populations, and their health is already impaired, with a weakened immune system,” said Thomas Byrne, a professor at Boston University who participated in the study.

“They are vulnerable and at high risk, but for many of them it is not too late. Those in charge have a moral duty to act now and save lives.”

EU concerns…

Surprisingly, in the European Union there is no data on the homeless population as a whole, as member-states use different methods of recording and reference years.

However, the data presented in the four published reports of the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSAsuggests that in all European countries, with the exception of Finland, in recent years there has been a significant increase in the homeless population.

Among the countries with the largest increase are England (169% increase between 2010 and 2016), Ireland (145% increase between 2014 and 2017) and Belgium (96% increase between 2008 and 2016).

With the coronavirus crisis, the dialogue in the above-mentioned countries has intensified, regarding the protection of the homeless and taking measures for those who, in fact, cannot follow the instructions that will keep them safe and will prevent the spread of the virus.

France has set up 80 shelters across the country that can accommodate homeless people who have tested positive for the virus, but do not require hospitalization.

More than 10,000 people have died in Italy due to the virus, and the total number of confirmed cases is approximately 100,000.

In Rome, which has approximately 8,000 homeless people, many have moved closer to the Vatican where they are offered food and facilities to take a shower. At the same time, services to support the homeless are struggling to provide not only food but also personal protective equipment (masks, gloves) needed to prevent the virus from spreading.

At least 40,000 people are without a roof over their heads in Germany, and it has become more difficult to care for them after the lockdown and suspension of many support initiatives. People are not allowed to remain at homeless shelters during the day, they can only spend the night.

At the same time, many of the lockdowns in European countries have left the homeless without a way to earn money (collecting bottles, begging). The same reality applies in the United Kingdom.

In Romania, currently there is practically no state welfare being offered to the homeless.

And what about us? In Greece, there are approximately 20,000 people who are homeless. In Athens, it is estimated that about 1,000 people need care. The city of Athens has taken steps to support the homeless, mainly in collaboration with NGOs (PRAXIS, Doctors of the World, organizations such as Positive Voice and Prometheus) and initiatives (STEPS), and there are provisions for free meals. But currently there are still people who need help.

…and the unique example of Finland

It is the only country in the EU where the debate over protecting the homeless from the virus has not evolved with the same intensity. Additionally, it is the only country which has managed to reduce the number of their homeless by offering them safe living conditions, while the rest of the EU countries recorded significant increases.

Finland pursues a truly groundbreaking policy in managing the issue of homelessness.

As the FEANTSA report states, the Scandinavian country approaches homelessness as “a housing problem and a violation of fundamental rights, both solvable, and not as an inevitable social problem resulting from personal issues.”

This means that the entire approach is different: first, the way to deal with the lack of housing is to provide people with a house. This is done without strict conditions and without excluding people with drug and alcohol abuse issues.

In fact, support is provided to address addiction or health issues, as well as to enable people to stand on their own two feet, resolve bureaucratic issues and find a job.

In contrast to homeless shelters, (in which many beds are placed in a common room − a solution that most European countries resort to) in Finland, the practice of supported, independent living is preferred. Thus, entire buildings are transformed into apartments where a homeless person may live on their own, while having access to support services.

Does this approach work? Between 2008 and 2015, homelessness decreased by 35% in Finland. And in 2017, only 415 people were either living on the street or in shelters.

Thus, Finland, a country without people that are homeless or crowded in shelters, is in the unique position to not have to participate in a dialogue about homelessness during the pandemic. Throughout the EU, with the quickening spread of the virus and the coming weeks to be crucial, this dialogue has become an increasingly worrying one.

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