Site map
About us
 Quick search

Print this page

Share International HomeShare International Home





 A roof is not enough -
a look at homelessness worldwide
by Monte Leach

According to Scott Leckie, Director of the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions in Geneva, homelessness persists on a vast scale in both rich and poor countries because of economic and political disregard for the human rights of the poor. 

According to estimates, 100 million people worldwide are literally homeless. They have no shelter: they sleep on pavements, in doorways, in parks or under bridges. Or they sleep in public buildings like railway or bus stations, or in night shelters set up to provide homeless people with a bed.

The estimated number of homeless increases to 1,000 million people if we include those in housing that is "very insecure or temporary, often of poor quality - for instance, squatters who have found accommodation by illegally occupying someone else's home or land and are under constant threat of eviction; those living in refugee camps whose home has been destroyed; and those living in temporary shelters (like the 250,000 pavement dwellers in Bombay)". This is according to a 1996 report by the UN Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat).

The numbers would surpass 1,000 million if we include "all people who lack an adequate home with secure tenure (ie, as owner-occupiers or tenants protected from sudden or arbitrary eviction) and the most basic facilities such as water of adequate quality piped into the home, provision for sanitation and drainage".

At the most basic economic level, homelessness is caused by poverty and unemployment. The poor simply cannot afford adequate shelter.

The problem isn't limited to the developing world. In the European Union countries, an estimated 2.5 million people are homeless over the course of the year. In the US, estimates are that at least 700,000 people are homeless on any given night - living in public places or in emergency shelters. At some time during the year, some 2 million Americans are homeless.

Inadequate housing takes a variety of forms world-wide, including: cages (Hong Kong); buses and shipping containers (Israel and the occupied territories); pavements (India and Bangladesh); cellars, staircases, containers and rooftops (Europe); streets (children throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe); and cardboard boxes (United States).


The causes of inadequate housing would not seem to include lack of international agreements on the subject. In addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there are literally dozens of other treaties, declarations, conventions, and covenants, signed by all UN states, that proclaim housing as a fundamental human right. Over 40 national constitutions also include the right to housing.

So why is homelessness so pervasive? The causes are varied. At the most basic economic level, homelessness is caused by poverty and unemployment. The poor simply cannot afford adequate shelter. With estimates of the number of absolute poor (those who cannot meet their most basic needs) reaching 1,200 million people worldwide - which is about equal to estimates of the homeless - poverty and homelessness are linked almost by definition. Beyond basic economics, there are political causes as well. "As countries develop, land values go up, and as they do, the people that have access to money and capital buy that land, generally in the best places," according to Scott Leckie, Director of the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) in Geneva. "The middle and lower income groups are forced to the periphery of the city. That's why slums pop up around every single Third World city.

"Big money and gigantic vested interests are involved, whose interests are that the value of the property or land continues to increase year after year. This is a great thing if you have property. But if you don't, it's quite difficult to access affordable housing."

Because the poor often do not carry much political weight, a government may not feel the political pressure to improve its housing and anti-poverty policies. "If the government was elected because giant landowners and big corporate bosses wanted things a certain way, obviously the government is not going to spend considerable energy in trying to eradicate poverty." And government involvement is essential to the improvement of housing conditions because a purely private-sector, market-based approach does not work, Leckie says. "The legal housing market in every country in the world, no matter how rich or poor, fails to provide the necessary housing supply for the poorest 40 per cent of the population. The market simply does not provide for the lower income groups."

Add to the mix the international pressure exerted by institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. According to Leckie: "A country may have a decent housing policy, but also a huge debt. The World Bank and IMF come in with so much money and power, and basically say: 'You can either be a part of the world's economy, and play by the rules we establish, and cut these expenditures, or you can be ostracized and isolated from the world economy.' You can imagine the pressure brought to bear even on a reasonable government."


There are viable solutions to many of these problems, and in some countries, more than others, the solutions are being implemented, at least on the local level. Daniel Biau, Executive Coordinator of Habitat in Nairobi, Kenya, says that to deal with the completely homeless population, governments should intervene directly: "Absolute homelessness is a bit like absolute poverty. It's a question of survival. You have to provide a safety net. These people are so poor they must be assisted directly." But for "relative homelessness, or relative poverty, you have to provide a framework, provide incentives," he says.

Many of the "relative homeless" are among the 1,000 million people who live in slums or shanty-towns. Almost all slums are technically illegal settlements, meaning that the people do not have clear title to the land, or that they have squatted on the land outright. Because there is an insufficient supply of legal housing available, people create their own housing solutions. They build slums near the city, which means near employment possibilities.

In fact, says Scott Leckie: "The overwhelming majority of new housing built in the world today is built by the people themselves, by the people who live in those houses, and by the communities in which they live." This trend should be encouraged by governments, Leckie believes. The solution to slums is not to evict people, or to eradicate the dwellings, he says, but to create conditions so that people can improve their own dwellings, with the assistance of the community. "One of the best ways to do that is by giving slum-dwellers security of tenure, so they know they are protected against arbitrary, unfair, or illegal eviction. If people know that, even if they only make a couple of hundred dollars a year, which many people do, they'll spend money improving their house that they wouldn't otherwise do if they were afraid of being evicted. If governments acted in partnership with people in this way, many good things could happen."

Biau agrees that improving slum conditions should be a key focus of governmental policy. "In developing countries, the first step for any housing policy should be to improve existing informal settlements [slums or shanty towns]," he says. "This includes the provision of security of tenure, and the provision of basic infrastructure, including water, sanitation and electricity." Another important component of housing policy, says Biau, should be the provision of financial incentives to small, private investors to encourage the development of cheap rental housing. "Governments should be enablers of development rather than controllers," says Sara Wakeham, Africa specialist at Habitat. "All of this informal development is happening anyway. We want local governments to support this development, rather than restrict and control it, and so encourage more and better-quality housing."

International assistance

International development aid to developing countries is on the decrease worldwide. And even within that shrinking pie, the amount of aid directed to the housing sector is only 2 to 3 per cent of total assistance. According to Daniel Biau: "Housing is such an expensive item that Western countries cannot pay for housing provision as part of their aid. They can pay for technical assistance, but they are a bit reluctant to provide it. Western governments consider housing a domestic priority, not a priority for international assistance. They prefer to focus on agriculture, for instance."

This approach is short-sighted, Biau believes. "International agencies have not yet understood that the 21st century will be the century of cities. Poverty and homelessness will more and more be concentrated there, and the international community has to do more to help developing countries."

Success stories

European Union countries are considered to have among the most socially advanced housing policies in the world. Among developing nations, countries such as Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Indonesia, Senegal, Singapore, and Tunisia are praised for their efforts. In Brazil, for example, cities such as Fortaleza, Recife, Porto Allegre, Santo Andre, and several others are considered to have quite effective housing programs. And in post-apartheid South Africa, much progress has been made in making housing policies more favorable to the poor.

Much of the progress comes at the local level. "The places where you see success stories are the places where there are very strong community organizations present, a very high degree of participation in the community, and where the government has acted as a facilitating rather than a repressive force," says Scott Leckie. "Most of the success stories are small-scale, community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, but they get replicated in other places once people find out about them."

Biau agrees: "The ideal situation would be to have a strong municipality defining the city-wide policies, and for each squatter settlement or slum to have a few CBOs (community-based organizations) and NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] co-ordinating the implementation of these policies. I believe that the key partnerships in the future will be between local authorities and CBOs and NGOs, at the city level."

But the political will must be present to accomplish these goals. "If there is the will in any city or country, there is a way to improve the situation," says Biau. "And the way can be easily defined." Biau says the media have an important role to play in convincing policy-makers to act more responsibly. And ultimately the people themselves have the ability to generate the needed political will. Throughout Latin America, for example, people have organized themselves, invaded land, and pressured governments to act for many years. In the Philippines, some 100,000 CBOs and NGOs are working toward the improvement of housing and living conditions in the slums.

"A popular-based approach, involving all relevant factors, most importantly the people themselves, is the basis of the solution," says Scott Leckie. "More and more people are beginning to realize that, and more and more people are becoming involved in these types of movements. In conjunction with greater recognition of housing as a human rights issue, more and more human rights and legal groups have become involved as well. Those two forces together are pushing things in a good direction."

Adequate housing for all is one of Maitreya's top priorities. On paper, it is also one of humanity's priorities. "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health & well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing & medical care, and necessary social services ..."

These words, from Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, were written 50 years ago. Yet, as we approach the end of the 20th century, at least one out of five members of the human family don't have a proper home to live in. 

From the September 1998 issue of Share International.

More on this topic

Archives main index

Background information page


HomeTop of Page


First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005