Homelessness is at crisis levels in Europe’s cities. The numbers are stunning Image Credit: Reuters

Across western Europe this mid-December, cities and towns are full of festive cheer, shoppers out buying gifts, stocking up on extra supplies, preparing house and home for the Christmas and New Year holidays.

And as shoppers crowd to those malls and shopping arcades, through the streets and alleys, they’ll be walking by Europe’s homeless.

Right now, homelessness is at crisis levels in Europe’s cities. The numbers are stunning. Tonight, some 700,000 people in cities like London, Paris, Berlin, Lisbon, Dublin and Warsaw will be sleeping rough. That means bedding down in wet blankets on sleeping bags, sleeping on cardboard, in doorways, bank lobbies, in underpasses, or trying to find a bed-space in an overcrowded and overwhelmed social hostel.

In a small country like Ireland, there will be 10,500 homeless people trying to sleep — and some 4,000 of those are children.

In London, a city famed for its iconic red double-decker buses, one charity working with the homeless has turned four decommissioned London Transport buses into homes for those who had been sleeping rough

- Mick O'Reilly

Together, the 28 nations of the European Union (EU) make up some 550 million people that combined is the third largest economic bloc in the world. Along with the 700,000 rough sleepers, there are 17 million homes that won’t have enough heat, 34 million homes that are overcrowded, and seven million more homeowners will be in arrears with their payments that they are in danger of adding to the ranks of the homeless.

As for most issues in the EU, there are agencies that monitor such things, and the figures are compiled by Feantsa — the European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless. And Feantsa says the problem in Europe’s cities is getting worse by the month.

Simply put, the gap between rich and poor is growing by the month, rents are at sky-high prices and are pricing many on minimum wage out of the market, and accommodation that would normally be used as long-term rentals is being used by homeowners as speculative tourist short-term rentals on portals such as Airbnb.

The most recent Feantsa report says that homelessness is on the rise in every EU country with the exception of Finland. For the homeless, the rain, snow and sub-zero temperatures certainly overnight and throughout some days are a life-threatening reality.

Social pandemic

While data from individual countries is compared using different metrics, the overall picture is pretty grim. In England, homelessness between 2010 and 2016 has risen by 169 per cent, In Belgium, twice as many people are homeless now as compared to 2010, and in Ireland, the number of families sleeping rough is up 178 per cent since 2015.

It’s not as if there aren’t initiatives in place to try and stem this social pandemic.

In London, a city famed for its iconic red double-decker buses, one charity working with the homeless has turned four decommissioned London Transport buses into homes for those who had been sleeping rough. According to figures supplied by the Mayor of London’s office, rough sleeping in the city increased by 18 per cent over the past year, and nearly 9,000 bed down in parks or doorways there every night.

In Spain, the Health Ministry estimates that there are 33,000 families sleeping rough every night. Outside Madrid’s El Prado Museum — on the must-see list for tourists visiting the Spanish capital — homeless people set up tents to show the city officials that they are not invisible.

Public health hazard

City officials were quick to condemn the protest, pointing out that many of those who pitched tents were activists and not actual homeless. It’s an attitude that not uncommon for municipal officials across Europe who deal with the issue literally at street level.

In Dublin, one charity dealing with the homeless asked for donations of winter coats to be hung on the Ha’penny Bridge, an iconic city landmark for the homeless to use.

Donations streamed in, but city workers removed the coats. They were a public health hazard. And as if sleeping rough isn’t. Homeless people die 30 years earlier on average than those with a roof over their heads, and Feantsa says that once homeless, a person spends an average of 10.3 years living rough.

Many western European nations have opened their doors to more than a million refugees fleeing violence, social and political upheavals across sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

This influx has been accommodated, literally, in hostels and housing made available by funding from national, regional and municipal governments aided by charities and very generous individuals. It is generally a remarkable success story of integration over these past five years in particular and one that all involved deserve kudos.

Now, however, a similar mobilisation of resources is needed across Europe, by its government and municipalities, social programmes and charities to focus on giving Europe’s forgotten homeless a roof over their head.

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