Geographies of exclusion

The European Union is committed to ending homelessness by 2015, but across the continent, policies that frame homelessness as an ‘offence’ and the governance of public spaces as a law and order problem, are working against this goal, says Guillem Fernàndez Evangelista
Guillem Fernàndez Evangelista
20 September 2011

In 2010, the European Parliament adopted a Declaration on the strategy to end street homelessness in the European Union by 2015. The declared aim is: no one sleeping rough; no one living in emergency accommodation for longer than the period of an ‘emergency’; no one living in transitional accommodation longer than is required for a successful move-on; no one leaving an institution without housing options; and, no young people becoming homeless as a result of the transition to independent living. Achieving this goal, however, will require a significant departure from the current practices governing homelessness and public spaces across Europe which are increasing the exclusion, institutionalisation and criminalisation of poor and homeless populations, trying to render them invisible rather than addressing the root of the problem.

The geography of exclusion is most visible in the governance of public space and the management of homeless people--rough sleepers, hostel dwellers or the inadequately housed--who are forced to carry on their ordinary (and extraordinary) business of life in public space. Public space refers to all those areas of passage to which everyone (in theory) has direct and unrestricted access, and which are customarily common property or part of the public domain; the ‘urban commons’ that is often both a source of sustenance and violence for people in poverty, especially the homeless. However, the interpretation of what constitutes public space is far from uniform, from both a legal and a socio-cultural point of view. The European Observatory on Homelessness (EOH), for example, uses three categories of public spaces: external, internal, and quasi-public space. Governance in Europe, influenced by neoliberal thinking, has gradually shifted the balance towards private or quasi-public spaces; a development which has important implications for the rights of homeless people. Even if homeless people tend not to be the explicit targets of measures used to control public space they nonetheless feel their effect disproportionately because of their reliance on such space to conduct their daily activities.

Across the EU in recent years, both at national and city level, controversial attempts have been made to regulate behaviour in public space. The view that the regulation of public space, through ordinances that prohibit certain forms of behaviour or exclude people from city areas, constitute an ‘attack’ on homeless people has resulted in the assertion of the ‘right to the city’, on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe the debate has centered not just on homeless users of public spaces and quasi-public spaces such as shopping centres and railway stations, but also on migrants, particularly Roma. The French government´s recent decision to vacate close to 300 ‘illegal’ Roma and Travellers’ settlements in the Loire Valley, is a particularly egregious example, given the acknowledged failure to implement legislation requiring municipalities with over 5,000 residents to set up permanent stopping places for Travellers, something which the European Committee of Social Rights (ESCR) said had forced Travellers to use sites illegally (Complaint 39/2006 FEANTSA vs France). While the penalization of poverty in Europe has not (yet) reached the zenith it has in the US, migrants have been steadily penalized in similar ways for a number of years.

The conflicts over the rights of homeless people arise in both low profitability spaces that are marked for transformation and in high profitability spaces. Eradicating signs of poverty and traces of the poor is often integral to ‘cleaning up’ public spaces and enhancing their value. For example, as Busch-Geertsema explains, in Germany the redevelopment of railway stations, notably by converting the larger ones into shopping centers, has been a major part of the modernization process and the plans to make the Deutsche Bahn a more profitable business (prior to proposed privatization). The ‘3-S-programme’ (Service, Sicherheit und Sauberkeit - service, security and cleanliness) has been the core strategy of Deutsche Bahn to improve the image of its stations. Universal rules imposed on every railway station forbid begging and the ‘causing of a nuisance’ to others, the excessive consumption of alcohol, sitting or lying on floors, stairs and entrance areas, and searching garbage bins. The removal of homeless people and of drug addicts from stations has been an explicit target of the Bahn-management.

Policies on homelessness may be driven by considerations far from helping the homeless. For example, as reported by Housing Rights Watch in Europe, the Prague City Council approved an action plan for homeless people including building an “integrated assistance center” (a camp) for Prague’s homeless people on the outskirts of the capital. The justification given by the Mayor for isolating homeless people is that “they are a health and safety risk, and they are not nice to see.” In addition to the prejudice inherent in this proposal, it actually does little to tackle homelessness. According to the plan, entry into the camp is voluntary and homeless people will not be physically forced to go there. The involvement of a specialised municipal police team that specifically deals with homeless people, however, makes it clear that the police may put heavy pressure on homeless people to move to the camp and stay there.  Another controversial element of the action plan is the setting up of a single registry of homeless people which would be accessible to the municipal police. There is well-founded concern that the decision behind such a registry is not to assess the needs of homeless people, but rather to enable their policing.  

Homeless people not only sleep, eat and wash in public spaces but also use them as a means to build social and economic networks and for their livelihoods, including begging (although FEANTSA’s experience in different European cities shows that only a small proportion of homeless people actually beg). In this regard, as the number of laws and policies addressing the use of public spaces have increased, homeless people have seen several of their survival strategies penalized to the point of incarceration. Some studies observe that part of the increase in the inmate population is  related to an increase in people convicted for begging.

As Eoin O’Sullivan has documented, homeless people pass through many institutions —prisons, shelters, hostels, pensions and even mental health centers. It is also becoming clear that while homelessness can lead to incarceration,  incarceration itself is contributing to homelessness. Being homeless after prison increases the likelihood of further incarceration, particularly for those who have had a history of homelessness. A study on gender and homelessness in England found that homelessness is disproportionately high for those who have regular contact with the prison system, such as street sex workers. In recognition of the relationship between institutional discharge and subsequent homelessness, some European countries have put in place measures to reduce the risk of post-release homelessness. For instance, one of the objectives of Sweden’s national homelessness strategy 2007–2009 was to reduce the number of people leaving prison, treatment units, supported accommodation and care houses without any accommodation arranged. On similar lines, the Danish national strategy  on homelessness 2009–2012 also aims to ensure that a housing solution is available upon release from prison or hospital.

But this is not the case, for example, in Hungary, where a proposal to amend the law on criminal offences says people “found guilty of rough sleeping” within six months of first receiving a fine for this “offence” should be obliged to pay a fine of €600, or be imprisoned if they cannot pay. This proposal is the latest step in a concerted attack on homeless people in Hungary. Previous punitive steps included the expulsion of homeless people from public spaces and a Budapest City Council decree that makes sleeping on the street an offence and subjects people sleeping rough to fines and detention.

Measures such as the proposed Hungarian amendment are often contrary to constitutional principles as well as international human rights law as they violate rights to equal treatment and human dignity. Criminalisation means an additional and more serious stigma that further jeopardizes homeless people’s chances of social or labour market integration. Besides they are also ineffective, since they do not offer real, sustainable solutions to homelessness like prevention policies, long-term supported housing, increasing social housing stock etc. Framing homelessness as an ‘offence’ or even ‘deviance’ and viewing the governance of public spaces as a law and order problem subtracts questions of homelessness, poverty and inclusion from social policy. These policies are contrary to the spirit of the EU Declaration to end homelessness by 2015, and will make more difficult, if not impossible, the recognition and realisation of the rights of people living in inadequate housing and in poverty.

To read other articles in openDemocracy's dialogue Governing Poverty: Risking Rights? Click here 


Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData