European Commissioner responsible for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion
Speech: Homelessness in the EU and the Social Investment Package
Irish Presidency Conference on Homelessness /
Leuven, 1 March 2013
Honourable Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen,
First of all, I would like to thank the Irish Presidency for this very timely initiative. This informal Roundtable will allow us to discuss how we can best strengthen policy action and prevention of homelessness in the European Union.
The presence of so many ministers and ministry representatives demonstrates that there is a strong and shared commitment in Member States to step up policy efforts, and address the problem of homelessness in a more effective way.
It is high time for us to act. In recent years, homelessness has risen almost everywhere in Europe, reaching unprecedented levels. An expert estimate for 2009 found that there can be about 410,000 persons sleeping rough or in an emergency shelter on any given night in the European Union. The risk of becoming homeless has increased due to rising levels of unemployment and deepening of poverty. Not only the overall demographic and societal changes, but specifically living in segregated areas, the institutionalisation and discrimination influence the risk of homelessness.
Ever wider layers of the society are affected by this phenomenon, including young people, migrants, Roma people and families with children. Turbulences in the housing and mortgage markets have limited access to affordable housing, and a sharp rise in evictions threatens thousands to fall into homelessness.
While the leading causes and extent of homelessness may vary between countries, the overall challenges are very similar, which justifies the need for mutual learning and elaborating a common approach.
Exchange of experience is important between national, regional and local authorities, as they have the main policy competence and responsibility for implementing homelessness strategies. The EU has gradually increased its efforts to promote the dialogue among the Member States.
The Open Method of Coordination has been established as an EU level platform to share good practice. Homelessness featured high on the Social Protection Committee's agenda during the 'homelessness light year' in 2009. Later on the issue has been addressed through thematic peer reviews, reports on homelessness policies, or mapping of relevant activities at each level.
The Commission regularly provides fora for more active discussion on homelessness. The 2010 Consensus Conference was the first event to promote the ETHOS (European Typology of Homelessness and Housing Exclusion) definition and to call for integrated national homelessness strategies. The 11th European meeting of People Experiencing Poverty in 2012 enabled decision-makers to exchange views on homelessness with people living in poverty. The Annual Conventions take stock of important social policy developments.
Beyond that, EU policies and guidance provide a framework for actions to address the grave problems our societies encounter, such as homelessness.
The Europe 2020 Strategy set a target for lifting at least 20 million people out of poverty and social exclusion by 2020. Achieving this target requires major reforms in Member States, taking into account structural trends, such as demographic ageing. Greater participation in employment, more efficient social spending and fairer taxation can help offset inequality and combating poverty across Europe.
To address these issues facing Europe today, a Social Investment Package was adopted on 20 February and presented in the Employment and Social Affairs Council yesterday.
The Package urges Member States to shift their focus to investment in human capital and social cohesion. Social investment is about 'preparing' rather than 'repairing'. This can make a real difference to prepare individuals for the critical moments they may experience in their lives. It helps people to adapt to societal challenges such as a changing labour market, and helps people to avoid hardship such as falling into poverty or losing their homes.
Social Investment today helps to prevent Member States having to pay much higher financial and social bills tomorrow.
The Package comprises three policy reform strands. First, it calls for a more efficient use of social policy budgets.
The second strand aims at improving people's chances of participating in society and the labour market: through access to quality services, adequate income support and inclusive labour markets.
The third strand focuses on investing throughout people's lives: intervening as early as needed, safeguarding against risks and preventing disadvantage from compounding, reducing the need for higher social spending later.
The Package consists of a main Communication that sets out the general policy framework and concrete actions proposed to Member States and the Commission. It also gives guidance on the use of EU funds to support reforms.
The Communication is accompanied by a Recommendation against child poverty and six analytical staff working documents. One of the staff working documents is specifically dedicated to confronting homelessness in the EU. But, many other elements of the Package contain relevant provisions on homelessness, pointing out for example the need to improve access to housing as part of active inclusion policies or calling for the prevention of child homelessness.
The Commission believes that homelessness should be addressed through the integrated policy framework of the Social Investment Package, rather than through fragmented, standalone policy structures.
Both the general aims of the Package and the more concrete findings of the staff working document on homelessness are in line with the content of the Discussion Paper of the Irish Presidency.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Looking through the issues addressed in this paper, I must say that the Commission also arrives at the similar conclusions as the Presidency. These key common points are well reflected in the Social Investment Package.
The housing-led approach would offer a structural solution to homelessness and has shown to be more effective than the traditional “staircase” approach.
Prevention has shown to be the most cost-efficient and harm-minimising approach to homelessness. General prevention programmes should target the root causes of homelessness, which presupposes mobilising a range of welfare and other policies.
Evictions may successfully be avoided through early intervention, supporting integrated services and protective financial schemes. These legally guaranteed measures can make empower those who are at risk of falling through all safety nets, like people with migrant background. In this context, the Commission has proposed a Directive on credit agreements related to residential property aiming at improving access to basic financial services as well as supporting Member States’ work to tackle indebtedness and foreclosures.
The Commission is in favour of mainstreaming the common ETHOS definition and promotes data- based policy-making. Under the new Programme for Social Change and Innovation, the Commission will continue to fund the testing and upscaling of innovative policy ideas in the social domain. For example, in the framework of social innovation, a pilot project on European use of the US Housing First model was launched. Its results -foreseen for the end of 2013- may open more possibilities for tackling long-term homelessness.
The development of integrated approach at national and local levels to tackle homelessness is crucial. The policy guidance set out in the Social Investment Package can help the Member States in this respect. In order to ensure the monitoring of the implementation of the Package (among other provisions for addressing homelessness), the Commission will feed it into the work for the upcoming European Semesters as part of the Europe 2020 process. The Commission will push for a social investment approach towards homelessness to be reflected in the National Reform Programmes. The Commission will address social protection reform, and the increased focus on social investment and active inclusion in Country Specific Recommendations.
It is important to ensure that the Europe 2020 headline targets are backed up by EU funding priorities. For the next programming period the Commission has proposed to allocate at least 20% of the future European Social Fund to "promoting social inclusion and combating poverty", including homelessness policies. However, combined use of the Structural Funds is already possible, it ought to be fully exploited. For instance, housing interventions integrated with employment or education-related actions should be further developed to improve access to good-quality, affordable housing.
In addition, the recently proposed Fund for Aid to the Most Deprived can be used by the Member States to relieve the plight of the homelessness.
The Social Investment Package makes many useful suggestions as to how the funds can be used for effective social investments in response to country-specific recommendations. These include putting into place effective partnerships which involve stakeholders throughout the planning, implementation and follow-up of programmes, so that real needs are targeted.
The upcoming Social Investment Package conference of the Irish Presidency on 2-3 of May could be the first occasion to discuss with Member States how the integrated implementation of the Social Investment Package can contribute to the fight against homelessness. The Employment and Social Affairs Presidency conclusions of June on the Social Investment Package may highlight what Member States could do in this regard and how the Commission intends to facilitate the process.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We all agree that homelessness is probably the most severe form of poverty and social exclusion in our societies. It quickly reduces a person’s physical and mental health, it is a waste of productive potential and it imposes a high cost on our societies. We owe it to ourselves to act swiftly and decisively in this matter and deliver efficient, integrated responses. You can count on the Commission to play its part, first and foremost through implementing the Social Investment Package.
I would like to conclude by reminding you of our obligation to protect and guarantee the basic human rights of all people who are residing within our territory. Living in homelessness should not be penalised. Discrimination and prejudices, denial of access to even the most basic services should be combatted, including in the context of the free movement of workers and third country migration.
Thank you for your attention.