OECD Expert Workshop on Homelessness and Affordable Housing Policies

On the 27th of November, I delivered opening remarks at the OECD Workshop on Homelessness and Affordable Housing Policies as part of the OECD Horizontal Housing Project.

Colleagues, Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for joining us today.

I am glad to be opening the workshop on Homelessness and Affordable Housing Policies, which constitutes an important part of OECD Horizontal Project on Housing.  I would especially like to thank the European Commission, represented today by Olga Martinez de Briones, for their support for this work. I would also like to thank the experts and policy makers who are joining us from across OECD countries.

Homelessness is a topic that is high on the agenda of so many countries. And for a very good reason. If you walk around most major cities today, including Paris, it is impossible not to notice people sleeping on sidewalks, in metro stations, or in storefronts.

While the definition of “homelessness” differ from country to country, there are believed to be around 1.9 million homeless people in OECD countries – and this is likely an underestimate because collecting data of homeless people is extremely difficult – I come back to this later.

The situation has worsened and has become dire.

In 16 OECD countries[1], the homeless rate[2] has increased in recent years. Particularly for those living in cities, the issue has become noticeably starker in recent years. It is said that two people are dying every day on the streets of Britain, and the total number of people sleeping rough has risen by a fifth over the last year.[3]

Not to mention that children are hit the hardest. I launched the report on Vulnerable Children last week on the eve of World Children’s Day and the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The report revealed alarming figures. Child poverty has increased in almost two-thirds of OECD countries over the past decade, with one in seven children in the OECD growing up in poverty today. The living standards of children from low-income families have also declined in many countries, particularly for those families with the smallest incomes. The report also reveals homelessness among families has risen significantly in England, Ireland, New Zealand and some US states. For children, homelessness can lead to increased anxiety, loss of contact with family and friends and poor educational outcomes.

To address this issue, we first need to know how we define homelessness and how we obtain reliable measures.

Homelessness is hard to measure.

In fact, homelessness data are hard to compare across countries. At the OECD, one of our main objectives is to provide harmonised data that allow countries to compare outcomes with their peers. But this is nearly impossible to do in the case of homelessness!

Why?

  1. First, because there is no internationally agreed upon definition of homelessness. For example, Canada, France, Ireland, Japan, and the United States use a relatively narrow definition of homelessness, which covers only people who are sleeping on the streets or living in shelters.

At the other end of the spectrum, Australia, Finland, Germany and Norway (among others) have adopted a much broader definition, which also includes people who are doubled up living with friends or family members because they don’t have a place of their own. This means that when we look at homeless estimates across countries, we are not necessarily comparing “like with like.”

  • To make it more difficult to track, homelessness isn’t always so visible. And the numbers of people without homes are often higher than we think. A growing number of people in OECD countries are sleeping in cars and parking lots, “couch surfing” or living with friends or family, because they can’t afford a place of their own.
  • And homelessness is a difficult circumstance to assess, because people experience homelessness in very different ways. In most countries, the most visible share of the homeless also tends to be the smallest: people who are “chronically homeless,” living for prolonged periods on the street, possibly suffering from poor mental health or addiction. In many countries, an even larger share is “temporarily or transitionally homeless”. These are people who experience homelessness for only a short period of time – often following a family break-up or a job loss.

But, first and foremost, we need to tackle the most basic and fundamental challenges. We need better data!

At the moment, not a single data collection method– whether we are using administrative data or point-in-time estimates such as street counts[4] can provide us with the whole picture of the problem. And this is the biggest challenge for us.

We need better data! Without it, we are lost in terms of how to address the issue. And this is why I’m pleased to know that today we will have an entire session dedicated to innovations in homelessness data and measurement this afternoon, with experts from Australia, France, Germany, the UK and the US. Without action, we risk the stability, health, well-being, safety, and security of countless individuals in our countries, failing to support them in tough times.

Then what do we know about homelessness in the OECD at this stage?

We know that the faces of homelessness are increasingly diverse. Across the OECD, we see growing numbers of homeless women, youth, families with children, seniors and migrants. Thus, there are many different experiences of homelessness, and policies must take this diversity into account. The figures in some countries for which we have data are staggering:

  • Youth represented more than a third of the total homeless populations in Norway and Australia.[5]
  • Family homelessness almost quadrupled in Ireland between 2014 and 2018.[6]
  • England (UK) recorded a ten-year high of homeless people over the age of 60 in 2018 – with the share of homeless seniors more than doubling in eight years.[7]
  • In Germany, the number of homeless refugees in 2018 represented nearly two-thirds of the total homeless population – and their share is growing.[8] 

We also know that homelessness tends to be concentrated in big cities:

  • Dublin is home to two-thirds of Ireland’s homeless population, even though it only represents about a quarter of the country’s total population.
  • In the United States, half of the homeless population is concentrated in just five states, with a quarter of the total homeless population in the state of California.

And, people become homeless for different reasons.

The OECD has identified three main drivers, and you will find these analysis in a few weeks as a Policy Brief on Homelessness in the OECD, and updates to the OECD Affordable Housing Database:

  • There are structural drivers of homelessness. This includes the lack of affordable housing. Housing is the single-largest household expenditure on average and has become less affordable across the OECD. House prices have increased three times faster than household median income over the last two decades and have risen than faster overall inflation.

This is a major challenge for individuals and households these days. We will take a deep dive into understanding how policy makers can prevent homelessness by providing more affordable housing this afternoon, with experts from Germany, Ireland, the Slovak Republic and Housing Europe.

  • There are systemic drivers. For example, a disproportionate number of youth become homeless after having left the foster care system. Some would transition out of prisons or mental health institutions without stable housing. For instance, the Abbé Pierre Foundation in France, present here today, reported earlier this year that one in four homeless people born in France was previously in foster care or known to child welfare services.[9]
  • And finally, there are individual drivers, such as a loss of job, a family breakdown, mental health or additional challenges.

What could be done about homelessness? What policy measures?

On the one hand, we need to better tailor homeless support to the diverse needs of the homeless population.

People who face financial difficulties or “hit a rough patch” may only require temporary housing support to help them get back on their feet. Meanwhile, women who are victims of domestic violence or refugees may need additional services relating to counselling, childcare or labour market support.

We also know that the most effective way to support the chronically homeless – people with more complex needs – is through “Housing First.”

Housing First approaches aim to put homeless people in permanent, immediate housing, with access to social services. 12 OECD countries report Housing First strategies at national level, and another seven at regional or local level.

However, while Housing First is becoming more widespread, most countries still regard this as a minor solution to the problem. In reality, in most places, emergency shelters remain the dominant form of homeless support. Not only is emergency accommodation expensive[10] but it is not a sustainable solution to end homelessness. Tension is rising between those favoring sweeps and those screaming for more services and more effective policy measures.

While there is no one fix-all cure, we want to highlight good initiatives to combat homelessness.

It is important to note that despite an overall increase of homelessness in the OECD, seven OECD countries[11] have experienced a decline. For example, Finland reduce their homelessness rate by 39% between 2019 and 2018! This shows that a few countries have enacted impactful policy changes in recent years.

Later today, we will hear more about the measures taken by national and local authorities in Canada, Denmark, France, Finland, Ireland and the UK.

I am sure that today’s workshop will be a great opportunity to share good practices and learn from each other.

And in the closing roundtable, welook forward to your views on how the OECD can best move forward with this work so that we can best support your efforts to end homelessness once and for all. This work will also contribute to the OECD Horizontal Project on Housing, which draws on expertise from across the Organisation to provide policy makers with guidance on the very complex issue of housing.

Thank you.


[1] Australia, Chile, the Czech Republic, Denmark, England (UK), France, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Scotland (UK), the United States and Wales (UK).

[2] The homelessness rate is calculated as the number of homeless people as a share of the total population.

[3] Independent, 21 November 2019 https://www.independent.co.uk/homeless-fund/homeless-fund-christmas-campaign-rough-sleeping-deaths-a9210816.html

[4] For instance, administrative data from shelters and local authorities can provide an estimate of how many people seek out support from public services over the course of a year. But they leave out people who don’t try to get public support – or don’t think they are eligible in the first place. Research has shown, for instance, that women are less likely to go to shelters, preferring instead to turn to friends and family in a first instance. On the other hand, point-in-time estimates, such as “street counts”, may better capture the share of the unsheltered homeless population. But they only provide a snapshot of the phenomenon on any given day – and fail to capture people who experience homelessness for a short time, or transition in and out of homelessness.

[5] 2019 OECD QuASH

[6] 2019 OECD QuASH

[7] Bulman, M. (2018), Number of homeless pensioners in England hits 10-year high, figures show, The Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/homeless-pensioners-elderly-single-parent-household-housing-shelter-figures-a8419241.html.

[8] www.bagw.de/de/presse/index~173.html

[9] Fondation Abbé Pierre (2019), L’état du mal-logement en France 2019 : Rapport annuel #24, www.fondation-abbe-pierre.fr/documents/pdf/rapport_complet_etat_du_mal_logement_2019_def_web.pdf

[10] The Guardian reported recently that England had spent over GBP 1 billion on emergency housing for the homeless – an increase of 78% in just five years (See: www.theguardian.com/society/2019/nov/14/cost-of-housing-homeless-families-rises-to-more-then-1bn)

[11] Austria, Canada, Finland, Israel, Norway, Poland and Sweden

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