The numbers of homeless families are increasing, not only in Germany but also across Europe. Against this background, the digital expert discussion illuminated the topic of family homelessness from a European perspective. Prof. Dr. Volker Busch-Geertsema opened the discussion with a problem description and analysis of the situation in Europe. Leena Lehtonen, Petra Gergov-Keskelo and Wayne Stanley described national as well as regional assistance, policies and measures related to homeless families in Finland and Ireland.
Family homelessness in Europe
To provide an overview, Prof. Dr. Volker Busch-Geertsema, from the Society for Innovative Social Research and Social Planning, summarized the findings of the study „Family Homelessness in Europe“ (European Observatory on Homelessness, 2017), which was conducted in 14 European Member States.
Prof. Dr. Busch-Geertsema stated that it is difficult to obtain a comprehensive pan-European overview because many countries do not collect separate data on family homelessness. Nevertheless, it could be said that, in general, assistance provision is often heavily biased towards single homeless people. Family street homelessness is rare in Europe.
In developed welfare states, there is a strong focus on child welfare and benefits for families, with the result that measures such as social housing and other preventive measures often keep families from becoming homeless. On the other hand, a significant proportion of homeless families are not included in homelessness statistics because shared housing and women with children in women’s shelters and safe flats do not appear in the statistics. Thus, there is a not insignificant amount of hidden homelessness among families. Comparing countries is generally very difficult owing to different ways of collecting statistics and the respective characteristics of the assistance systems.
The causes of family homelessness are manifold: relationship breakdowns and the resulting deterioration in the socioeconomic situation or domestic violence (usually by men against women) often play a role. Family homelessness is much less often associated with addiction or mental health problems, in contrast to single homelessness, where these factors play a significant role.
Prof. Dr. Busch-Geertsema saw possible solutions to the problem of family homelessness primarily in prevention rather than cure, in ensuring rapid access to affordable and appropriate housing, in rapid placement in normal housing rather than long stays in temporary accommodation, in promoting access to suitable housing with the maintenance of the personal local references and in better statistical recording of hidden homelessness and of homelessness in cases of domestic violence.
Family homelessness in Ireland
Wayne Stanley, Head of Communications and Policy for Simon Communities in Ireland, provided an insight into the current situation of family homelessness in Ireland. He began by briefly introducing the history of Simon Communities, which was founded by a group of students about 50 years ago. The students conducted surveys among people experiencing homelessness in order to identify their needs. As a result, food and meals were provided to homeless people. The students also brought the issue to the attention of the Irish government. Currently, he said, the need for the activities and services – now significantly grown and professionalized – of Simon Communities is great.
Stanley explained that family homelessness in Ireland has increased sharply in recent years, making it an important issue on the political agenda. Since 2014, he said, data on family homelessness have been collected regularly – currently, about 1,100 families in Ireland are homeless. Since 2014, the numbers have risen steadily, with more and more families losing their homes. The causes of homelessness among families are diverse and have changed significantly over the last 50 years.
In order to offer homeless families a new home, the Irish government has developed a programme that works intensively with homeowners to provide vacant housing to families on low incomes. Another programme was initiated to help families find new homes as quickly as possible so that they would not have to spend much time in temporary accommodation. This programme too had initially been successful, but the numbers of homeless families had subsequently risen faster and faster. The most significant cause of this, he said, is that the housing market does not provide enough opportunities for low-income families to find suitable affordable housing. Stanley explained that, paradoxically, family homelessness increased when the impact of the financial crisis began to wane in Ireland in 2007. This would have been because no new housing was being built in the public as well as the private housing market, and prices for rented accommodation and property continued to rise. Since the rental market in Ireland is primarily private, rental costs have risen as pressure on the market has increased.
The proportion of hidden homelessness among families is also significant in Ireland, he said. Families who are forced to leave their homes often first move in with friends and family if they cannot find affordable housing in the private rental market. For the Irish government, the prevention and combating of homelessness is an important issue. To prevent street homelessness, hotel rooms were initially made available to families, but these were not adequate accommodation. As a result, family shelters were created, in which families have access to shared rooms for cooking, doing homework, etc., in addition to sleeping quarters. By offering family shelters, he said, the focus of government action has changed: instead of providing families with a new home, they are first offered accommodation in a family shelter. Stanley also pointed out that, during the COVID pandemic, Ireland is experiencing decreasing homeless numbers, mainly because evictions are currently suspended. In addition, because of the lack of tourists, 9,000 Airbnb apartments in Dublin alone are available for housing. Simon Communities also uses such apartments to accommodate families. In summary, Stanley emphasized the need to create affordable housing for families in Ireland, to stave off homelessness.
Family homelessness in Finland
Leena Lehtonen, Project Manager at the Y-Foundation, and Petra Gergov-Keskelo, Project Adviser at the Federation of Mother and Child Homes and Shelters, spoke about family homelessness in Finland. The two speakers work together on the project “NEA – Securing Housing for Women”, the first project in Finland tailored to the needs and problems of homeless women. The project aims to end homelessness among women by helping them to find and keep a home.
Finland is the only EU country where the number of homeless has decreased recently. Based on the European initiative “Housing First”, national and regional strategies to counter homelessness are being developed and implemented. For example, there is a nationwide network of housing counselling centres, whose services are much used by families. In general, Finland has a strong social system that, for example, pays the rent for people who are unemployed. While the number of homeless people is decreasing overall, the relative number of homeless women is increasing, which was also a reason to initiate the NEA project. Among families, single-parent families are particularly affected by homelessness, but precise figures are also lacking in Finland. As in Ireland, the main causes of family homelessness are financial problems and rising rents. There is too little affordable housing for families, especially in cities. Moreover, families are at present not the target of homelessness services, so there is little family housing and no strategies for families to find a new home once they become homeless.
Petra Gergov-Keskelo explained how the Federation of Mother and Child Homes and Shelters offers families accommodation and support during difficult times. The primary focus, she said, is the well-being of children. In addition to establishing exchanges of information among affected individuals, counselling and temporary accommodation can be offered to families in problem situations.
In the subsequent lively exchange between the participants, various points were discussed. It was pointed out that it is especially difficult for families with adult children or children with disabilities, as well as for large families, to find a suitable new home or even a temporary apartment. Reference was made to women with children who have escaped domestic violence and are living in women’s shelters. Although they find protection there, they are not currently included in the statistics on homelessness because they officially have a home, even though the home is occupied by the perpetrator. The participants called for much better support and assistance for women and children transitioning from a shelter to the housing market. In addition, it was pointed out that, before becoming homeless, some families were living in demeaning and inadequate conditions, for example if the electricity or gas had been cut off owing to unpaid bills. It was agreed that strenuous efforts should be made to prevent families from having to live in such conditions, if at all possible, and that families with children who are minors should not be evicted. In summary, participants agreed that a significantly better supply of adequate and affordable housing is indispensable to prevent families from homelessness or from languishing in temporary accommodation.