Industrialized Countries - Commentary

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Hardship in the midst of plenty

Philip Alston

Throughout history, homelessness has been a haunting human fear. In every century, disasters, whether the result of human actions or of nature, have left behind troops of wanderers: men, women and children with no space to claim as their own. While it might be tempting to assume that homelessness is tied to a specific catastrophic event such as war or famine, today it is a stark reality in some of the world's wealthiest countries.

Many people living in the industrialized world have no place to sleep tonight, had no place last night and will have no place tomorrow night. In their dozens or hundreds or thousands, they drift along the streets of large, prosperous cities, often with babies in their arms, seeking warmth, safety and stability that are increasingly hard for them to find.

Copyright © UNICEF/Stephen Dupont/Panos Pictures

Several studies show the extent of the homelessness problem. For example, it is estimated that there are about 3 million people in the 15 countries of the European Union who do not have a permanent home. While Germany does not survey homelessness, a non-governmental organization estimated that more than 850,000 people were homeless in the country, of whom only a third were immigrants.

However, the problem is not limited to the European Union: On any given night, three quarters of a million people in the United States are homeless; in Toronto, Canada's largest city, 6,500 people stayed in emergency shelters on a typical night in late 1997, a two-thirds increase in just one year.

Because they are, on average, poorer than men, women can wind up on the streets. If she is on her own, if she heads a family or is trying desperately to escape from violence and abuse in her own home, a woman faces especially grim prospects. For example, it is estimated that in the United Kingdom, almost half of working women do not earn enough to afford the rent on even a one-bedroom unit. In the United States, women head about one third of all families, but half of all impoverished families.

Furthermore, an 11-city survey carried out in the United States shows that, on average, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment would require hourly wages of $10.73 -- more than twice the current minimum wage of $5.15 -- assuming one third of income is allocated to rent. And it is women who are over-represented in precisely the low-status, service-sector jobs that pay minimum wage.

While there are few statistics on the homeless -- in census-taking they often, quite literally, don't count -- many of the documented homeless are children, including the very young. In the United States in 1996, 5.5 million children were living in poverty, and it is reasonable to surmise that a goodly number of them were relegated to the streets.

The German study referred to earlier showed that a third of the homeless were children or adolescents, while estimates suggest that almost 250,000 young people between 16 and 24 became homeless in the United Kingdom within a single year, 1995.

In Australia, an estimated 21,000 young people between the ages of 12 and 18 are homeless at any one time.

And in the past 20 years, in many industrialized countries, the number of single-parent, especially mother-led, families has increased, with a large percentage living below the poverty line, particularly in Australia, Canada and the United States.

According to article 27 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, "States Parties recognize the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development." By its nature, homelessness denies every one of those rights.

Homeless young people are twice as likely as others to suffer from such chronic diseases as respiratory or ear infections, gastrointestinal disorders and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. In the United States, a homeless girl in her early teens is 14 times more likely to become pregnant than a girl with a home. In Belgium, half of the homeless people in shelters had dropped out of school during or immediately after primary school. In Germany, 8 of 10 homeless people living in shelters completed only primary education or had no schooling at all, while in Luxembourg, the figure is 9 out of 10.


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