Industrialized Countries - Commentary

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Rather than enjoying the right to "a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development," children on the street suffer from the cumulative effects of poverty, hunger, family breakdown, social isolation and, very often, violence and abuse. On their own before they have the opportunity to develop personal identities or to mature, without the stability required for self-confidence, or the skills and education needed to cope in the world, they are immensely vulnerable to enticement into prostitution, drug use and various forms of criminal behaviour. Sometimes, these are the only ways they can hope to survive. Moreover, often lacking experience with trustworthy adults, teenagers on their own can perceive offers of help as attempts to capture and hold them, and they may reject the very services they need most.

Many see only one way out: A 1995 national study in the United States found that 26 per cent of young people in emergency shelters and 32 per cent of those on the street had made at least one suicide attempt.

All this is happening at the same time that the industrialized world has been reaching dazzling levels of economic prosperity: The per capita gross national product of 12 industrialized countries more than doubled between just 1980 and 1995.

Within industrialized countries, there are increasing concentrations of wealth and want, as economies split between well-educated, highly paid professionals and entrepreneurs, and the socially, politically and economically disenfranchised. The latter are then seen as victims of 'collateral damage', the unfortunate but inevitable consequence of a vast array of fundamental shifts in the workplace. Many well-paid, full-time, secure and rewarding jobs, especially in manufacturing, have disappeared. Increased reliance on part-time, temporary workers has undermined family and community stability.

That instability mirrors and weakens already shifting family structures: More families must depend on two earners in order to maintain themselves at even a sustenance level.

At the same time, the demonization of caring government -- a phenomenon that has been particularly pronounced in countries like Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States -- leads to declining public investment in social housing and in local authorities and non-profit organizations concerned about the issue. This has been accompanied by a parallel demonization of the poor themselves -- with women who receive welfare cheques dismissed as 'welfare queens' -- which makes it easier for communities to cut funds and programmes designed to assist the most fragile of its members.

Excluding the poor

Homelessness is the predictable result of private and public-sector policies that exclude the poor from participating in the economic revolution, while safety nets are slashed in the name of 'global competitiveness'. Moreover, the situation is perpetuated by a deep reluctance to tackle the roots of the problem.

Such concepts as the existence of a social contract, of community, of concern for the long-term good or even of public morality are discarded as people ignore the growing, simultaneous presence of high levels of prosperity on the one hand and of homelessness on the other. The principles of economic and social rights -- an integral part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 50th anniversary of which is being celebrated with much fanfare -- are trampled without regard or regret.

That lack of a collective conscience makes it possible -- at a time when the booming economy and deregulation of the private sector have led to soaring rents -- for the United Kingdom and other countries to sell off public housing, either to occupants or to private landlords, without regard to the need for substitute measures for those who remain or are being added to the lists of the homeless.

Despite bureaucratic assurances that there are satisfactory stocks of 'affordable housing', flourishing real estate markets have led to gentrification of entire neighbourhoods that once offered low-cost shelter to poor people. Because the number of workers who are either unemployed, underemployed or low paid has grown, more and more people have to rely on shrinking social welfare payments. In many countries, it is the young who, once more, are specially targeted. For example, since 1988, 16- and 17-year-olds in the United Kingdom have been denied welfare, which is a factor in the rising number of homeless young people in that country.

Mental illness, drugs, and alcohol abuse continue to destroy lives, but fewer resources are being invested in dealing with them. In the United States, institutions for the mentally ill have been closed in favour of more humane community living arrangements, but these are chronically underfunded. Eager to live with others, but often without adequate back-up services and support, many such people are left to fend for themselves on the streets.

People in the industrialized world are living with the results of the changes that have occurred and of our responses (or lack of responses) to them. In Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain, the number of households in which people live below the poverty line now far exceeds the number of available social housing units. In Spain, for example, 2 million households that would qualify for social housing are competing for just 200,000 units. In Greece, where members of 650,000 households live in poverty, there is no social housing.

While it is becoming easier to fall from a marginal (and even a managerial) job to the street, it is much harder -- virtually impossible -- to make the journey in the other direction. There are daunting obstacles: the lack of a permanent address, a place to keep clean, the carfare required for a job search, a telephone number to leave with prospective employers. Now, the barriers are being raised higher still as governments cut back on assistance, tie it to work (or make-work) projects, insist that women with small children go into the workforce (although safe and adequate day care may not be available) and deny more categories of applicants. This identical pattern may not, of course, be true everywhere -- in the Nordic countries, for example -- but it is sufficiently repetitive as to seem pervasive.

In their zeal to deny the evidence of economic or social malfunctioning, more and more communities have tended to criminalize homelessness, a move that is, in equal parts, cynical and futile. By the end of 1996, three quarters of the 50 largest cities in the United States had imposed anti-begging laws. In Seattle, officials ordered vigorous enforcement of sidewalk and trespass laws, making it difficult for homeless people even to sit on benches in the downtown area. Like their rights, their existence is denied.

It is easy enough to ascribe 'rights' to people, including the right to housing. Fifty years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed that every person has the right to ". . . a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing. . . ." Since then, 11 additional human rights instruments have enshrined the right to decent housing.

Actually achieving those rights is, of course, more problematic. Even last-resort housing, emergency shelter, is in short supply. For example, although the number of shelter beds in Los Angeles more than tripled, from 3,500 to 10,800, between 1986 and 1996, there are still five to eight homeless people for every available space.


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