“We need more people to listen to the voices of the street”

25 July 2023

In Europe, homelessness is on the rise.

Big cities are particularly affected, and not just because of the housing affordability crisis, but also because large cities attract a great number of vulnerable people thanks to the services they offer.

Sjoerdje Van Heerden, Scientific Officer and Project Leader at the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, analysed homelessness in Europe and examined affected municipalities.

Van Heerden and her team determined trends and profiles in small and big cities, towns and villages where a total of 42,000 people identified as homeless.

The strategy to eradicate homelessness

What does being homeless mean? Van Heerden admits that data collection is challenging, and even “how you define a homeless person already limits a lot of the data collected,” she explains. In addition, many groups are vulnerable and  may not be recorded by statistics, Van Heerden adds.

Women and younger people, for example, tend to rely on more hidden forms of homelessness, either by being more on the move, living in less visible parts of the city or relying on ‘couch surfing’ and sleeping with families and friends or people that they just met.

Therefore, the real numbers may be even more worrisome. To tackle this situation, in June 2021, the 27 EU member states, EU institutions and key stakeholders involved in the fight against homelessness – including Eurocities – adopted the Lisbon Declaration.

The Lisbon Declaration launched the European Platform on Combatting Homelessness, which aims to end homelessness by 2030 so that “no one sleeps rough for lack of accessible, safe and appropriate emergency accommodation; no one lives in an emergency or transitional accommodation longer than is required for successful move-on to a permanent housing solution; no one is discharged from any institution (e.g. prison, hospital, care facility) without an offer of appropriate housing; evictions should be prevented whenever possible […] and no one is discriminated against due to their homeless.”

Tiny houses with a big purpose

Fabian Weergang, who experienced homelessness and rough sleeping and now works with the municipality of The Hague, is more pessimistic. “I don’t believe we’ll complete the task before 2030,” he says. “We need humanity, leadership, people who dare to be critical, change the way of thinking, we need people like you to really listen,” he claimed, addressing the audience of the Homelessness workshop in Brussels on 13 June. The event was part of the Brussels Urban Summit of which Eurocities was one of the four co-organisers.

​​​​“We need more people that ensure the voices of the streets are heard,” Weergang says. But he is not driven by pessimistic forecasts. “I want to share how my life experience pushed me up,” Weergang adds.

Weergang founded Devjo to help homeless people build their own tiny homes that they can independently pay for, which often means having a job. Through this approach, not only do they gain access to an individual dwelling, but they also acquire skills and experience in a field that is hiring new workers.

Weergangs’s other idea is to build those homes in unused sports fields. There are several of them in the Hague: they are big enough to host two or more tiny houses, and with a relatively easy connection to water and electricity.

Not only that, but in exchange for living in the sports field, beneficiaries volunteer for a few hours, which helps their integration into the local community.

Weergang is directly in contact with homeless people who apply for a home. “We not only have many homeless people involved in the project, but also a waiting list,” he says.  In addition, Weergang has a new idea for homeless people with a ‘green thumb’: he would like the tiny houses to be located inside a garden or a city park so that those living in them could help to take care of the surrounding plants and welcome visitors.

Starting over

The Lisbon Declaration also acknowledges that the drivers of homelessness are connected to the housing crisis and low-income and precarious jobs, among others.

Karen McDonald, Team Leader for the prison homelessness teams in Glasgow, warns that there is a strong correlation between poverty and criminality. May poor people tend to engage in illegal activities to survive and those leaving the penitentiary are likely to find themselves without a roof over their heads, she explains.

Mcdonalds’ team is there to help. The group works with people who are still in prison and helps them to make plans to ensure that they will have a place to go and access to support after leaving the penitentiary. This strategy reduces homelessness in the short and longer term and has shown an impact on reducing repeated offence rates.

Freek Spinnewijn, Director of FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless, mentions other at-risk groups such as migrants facing inadequate migration policies (nothing new, he says) and asylum seekers (whom he considers a new category). “Hundreds of migrants are on the streets in Brussels, which is a scandal,” Spinnewijn adds.

This is not better in other parts of Europe. There are 10,000 homeless refugees in Germany due to lack of housing, Spinnewijn notes. France also stands out for its lack of shelters. And EU mobile citizens are also joining as at-risk groups as they are not always entitled to adequate support.

Spinnewijn notes that some groups have always been vulnerable to a lack of housing, such as women who are victim of domestic violence, those who belong to the LGBTQ+ community, Roma people and people with a disability.

“All homeless people, regardless of their group, need housing, so we don’t need to differentiate,” Spinnewijn says, but profiles should be considered when defining individualised support plans, such as mental health support, access to education or financial guidance. For example, “you cannot put women and men together since women are more likely to experience domestic violence,” and therefore, need a tailored approach, he adds.

Preventing youth homelessness

Despite general trends showing that the homeless population is aging, youths are also increasingly at-risk. Every year, 50 youngsters leave the Ghent youth care foster care facility. This means that jobless people under 30 with no family or support struggle to find a decent house.

Jean-Marc Verwee, Project Director at NestInvest in Ghent, met private investors, youth care services, youngsters and governments (local and national) to buy apartments to rent exclusively to youngsters leaving the social care system.

“We started last year and bought three apartments and started to build two more. We helped seven youngsters. One found a job and left the apartment,” recounts Verwee. “Our biggest challenge is to find investors who believe in our project and want to build a better world,” he adds.

Verwee is determined to convince potential investors to contribute. “It’s a safe investment with little financial return but a big social return,” Verwee concludes.

Enter the EU institutions

Spinnewijn believes that many EU policies are not cross-cutting enough. Policies on gender, Roma, youth, migrants, mental health or child guarantee do not mention homelessness at all, he explains.

Michele Calandrino, Team Leader of Homelessness at DG Employment of the European Commission and Coordinator of the European Platform on Combating Homelessness, agrees with Spinnewijn, but adds that a lot has been done in the last 20 years. “Members signing to the platform have been a big achievement,” Calandrino explains.

The European Commission has launched a working group on funding along with the Council of Europe Development Bank to create additional projects. This offers an opportunity to cities working on homelessness-related projects. Eleven municipalities are already involved.

“No one should be sleeping rough by 2030,” concludes Calandrino. First comes prevention, then housing, he says.

Eurocities is part of the European Platform on Combatting Hopelessness to end homelessness by 2030.

Through the 13 June workshop, Eurocities offered an exploration of why some groups are more at risk of homelessness and why it is necessary to tailor responses to different profiles. Panelists discussed how cities and European institutions, and stakeholders can contribute to the goal of ending homelessness by 2030, as mentioned in the Lisbon declaration.


Solene Molard Policy Officer
Marta Buces Eurocities Writer