Delegates to the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II, Istanbul, 1996) and those to the World Food Summit (Rome, 1996) laboured long and hard to win grudging endorsements of the rights to housing and to food, respectively. Throughout most of the industrialized world, the right to housing is treated as nothing more than the statement of a worthy, albeit distant, goal. Perhaps the problem is one of perception: that the enshrined right to housing would mean committing to massive home-building programmes and then to the cost of maintaining such housing stocks.
In reality, however, what is needed most is a determination to create conditions that promote housing opportunities for all. That means removing obstacles to housing, including the gap between the minimum wage and the cost of decent accommodation, as well as establishing partnerships with homeless people, service and support groups, communities and local governments. Unfortunately, the private sector, which is so often a source of innovative solutions, has not shown any sustained interest in tackling the problem, which it does not see as part of its responsibility. Now, however, the private sector must somehow become involved in creating affordable housing, acknowledging that a healthy future for children depends on many things, housing among the most important of them.
Failure to take those steps dooms countries to continuing crises of homelessness. Under the McKinney Act, the United States has spent more than $10 billion on assistance for the homeless. In addition to emergency food, shelter and health care, it has financed help for young runaways, for initiatives designed to aid homeless people in making their way back into the housing market and for placing homeless children in school.
Homelessness interferes with the fulfilment of rights and with normal family life. This family of five, having reached the maximum stay in a shelter, has been given a one-week voucher for a motel room in Daytona Beach (USA). The children, ages 7 to 13, are not in school.
Throughout the years, the Act, which came into force in 1987, has undoubtedly helped hundreds of thousands of Americans move out of the legions of the homeless. But the tendency to 'put out fires', to respond to symptoms of homelessness rather than treating its roots, means that the numbers continue to rise.
Nonetheless, there are some reasons for cautious optimism. There are a number of industrialized countries, especially in Europe, that are ever more imaginative in seeking solutions. In Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, the right to housing has been incorporated into the national constitutions. While this often amounts only to a statement of intent rather than an entitlement, it is a sign that attitudes to homelessness are slowly becoming more humane and realistic. Other countries need to follow suit by giving a more sustained and practical emphasis to adequate housing as a human right.
A number of cities in Belgium now tax uninhabited houses in order to discourage owners from neglecting property and speculating. In the city of Ghent, that particular initiative led to a 50 per cent decrease in the number of registered uninhabited homes in just five years. France has announced an ambitious programme of building houses for the extremely disadvantaged and requisitioning vacant houses from institutional owners.
Austria's Special Assistance Bureau for Persons in Danger of Eviction offers a service to help people organize their finances. As a result, 60 per cent of rental arrears are eventually paid by tenants, and evictions, which are costly to taxpayers, are prevented.
Perhaps the most concerted and successful effort to deal with homelessness is in Finland where, after the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless in 1987, the Government devised a multifaceted response to the problem. It includes housebuilding, social welfare and health care services, and the obligation to provide a home of minimum standards for every homeless person. In just 10 years, the number of homeless in Finland has been cut in half.
As part of its attack on the problem, Finnish authorities recognized that the homeless young, in particular, need more than four walls and a roof. Therefore, they established a programme for housing homeless teenagers near 'support families' who help them keep their lives on track.
Clearly, homelessness is not an unsolvable problem if we have the political will to remove the strangling obstacles and to apply imaginative solutions.
Celebrations of a new millennium will ring hollow, indeed, if we do not put in place new plans, new ideas and a new determination to eliminate the homelessness that has bedevilled human history. Early in this century John Dewey, the great American educator, described what the goal should be. It remains as hopeful, and as distant, as it was then: "What the best and wisest parent wants for his [or her] own child, that must the community want for all its children."