Social exclusion across the European Union is following a declining trend but inequalities persist that expose less advantaged residents to various economic and social risks.

Homelessness, a phenomenon that leaves no country unaffected, is among the most crucial challenges that the European Commission has to manage. Brussels’ lack of a concrete EU-wide policy that directly addresses the issue could seriously jeopardise and call into question the European Union’s already wildly ambitious social cohesion goals. 

The Commission has pledged that an affordable housing programme should be part of an integrated policy that would address Europe’s growing homelessness issue. As homelessness rates increase, MEPs and the Commission agreed during the first European Parliament Plenary Session of the year that an urgent intervention is needed to tackle the issue.

Fighting homelessness through housing

Housing costs are rising all across Europe and households are now forced to spend more than 40% of their income on housing costs; a phenomenon that is becoming widespread across the EU. According to data provided by Eurostat, one in 10 EU residents was overburdened by rising housing costs in 2018.

Accordingly, the number of homeless people in Europe has increased substantially over the last decade. According to calculations presented by the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless in its 2019 overview, at least 700,000 people sleep on the streets or are in emergency accommodation on any given night, a 70% increase from 10 years before.

Finland is the only member of the EU member where homelessness is falling steadily thanks to its Housing First policy. Similar initiatives have been adopted by some European government of the national and local level. The Finnish model provides immediate housing to those without any pre-conditions and offers support services to empower the tenants in all aspects of their lives. 

An example of a housing-led approach to homelessness is the Tivoli project, developed by the Brussels Regional government, in which 70% of the houses are for conventional rent while 30% is for social purposes. 

NGO’s, the private sector, and housing associations are working to address the shortage of affordable housing observed across the EU by investing in social housing. The latter, however, appears to be generally underfinanced and according to data published by Council of Europe Development Bank, the overall spending by governments on social housing in 2017 represented only 0.66% of the European Union’s GDP, a percentage that continued to fall.

The importance of having access to affordable housing by people that are at risk of poverty was acknowledged during the first European Parliament Plenary Session of 2020 in January where Nicolas Schmit, the Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, said then that increased housing prices and the lack of social housing are key factors to the homeless problem in Europe.

The EU tools at the disposal of member states

Housing and assistance for the homeless remain among key principles the European Pillar of Social Rights, but a lack of cohesion in the bloc has badly hindered the EU’s ability to enforce these rights. 

In the first European Parliament Plenary Session of 2020, Schmit underlined that the EU’s role would be to work alongside all levels of government by offer support and coordination.

The Commission provides policy support, guidance, and orientation on how to design efficient national policies for accessible social housing and microeconomic imbalances. Brussels has also stressed that it is ready to support the EU’s 27 members ‘‘when and where possible’’ to help tackle homelessness. 

That pledge has come into question, however, as there is no data about the exact numbers of homeless people in Europe, while national figures are collected in different ways and dates which makes it difficult to have a clear picture of the state-of-play in the bloc. Given the complexity and magnitude of the homeless problem in the EU, a concrete EU action plan that directly addresses the problem is needed more than ever to help prevent the issue being exacerbated by rising costs and an increase in the size of the homeless population.