Monday, September 12, 2011

Homeless suffer most from demolition of Europe's welfare states

The world is a nastier place than it was this day 10 years ago.

But I am not writing about the legacy of the monstrous crimes committed on 11 September 2001. Instead, I wish to concentrate on how Europe is treating its most vulnerable inhabitants more callously.

To illustrate this point, I would refer you to the draft agenda awaiting MEPs in Strasbourg this week. Amid debates on agriculture, aviation and “excessive deficits”, the European Parliament has reserved a little time to talk about homelessness. The slot for this discussion is between 9pm and midnight on Tuesday, when the chamber will be almost empty.

Does that mean that the EU institutions are ignoring the marginalised? Not quite. Some 438 MEPs signed a “written declaration” in 2008 exhorting the Union to set an objective of ensuring that nobody has to sleep rough by 2015. It is an aspiration worthy of support. Yet it will inevitably be missed if the deliberate, ideologically-driven, demolition of Europe’s welfare states continues.

Small steps in the right direction are being followed by blatant U-turns. Also in 2008, Hungary became the first central or eastern European country to introduce a national strategy for overcoming homelessness. At the end of last month the top official in charge of issues relating to homelessness in Budapest City Council resigned because its mayor refused to rescind a new law threatening those who sleep outdoors with a €190 fine.

Criminalising the poor

This tendency to regard the extremely poor as criminal can be found in other countries with right-leaning governments. In March, Westminster Council in London, which is run by David Cameron’s Conservative Party, banned rough sleeping. Kind individuals who feed people shivering under cardboard could also be penalised as a result of the measure approved by the well-heeled politicians.

Far from providing the desperate with an alternative to the pavements, the Tories are slashing away mercilessly at the services that provide the homeless with a shred of dignity. About 60% of organisations working with the homeless in Britain have reported cuts to their budgets this year.

Feantsa, the coalition of homelessness groups in Europe, has documented how the problems facing the global economy have been used as a pretext to wield a machete against social expenditure. Half of all homelessness services in Greece have been shut down at a time when there has been a 20% rise in demand for such services. Portugal has a particularly high level of “hidden homelessness”, where the impoverished have to squeeze themselves into overcrowded accommodation. State funding for an Irish scheme for housing people who are progressing out of homelessness was reduced from €145 million in 2010 to €75 million this year.

Please don’t accept assurances that these reductions are caused by technical adjustments needed to ensure a long-term recovery of the economy. In all of these countries, corporate federations and their chums in government buildings have been pushing for savage cutbacks to public expenditure because they have sniffed an opportunity to widen inequality. In Portugal, Pedro Ferraz da Costa from the business-financed think tank Forum for Competitiveness, has rejoiced at how a programme for remodelling the country’s economy that “no party would ever have put forward” in recent decades is being ushered through. The politician-turned-businessman Peter Sutherland has warned that Ireland’s credibility is in jeopardy unless “hard decisions” are taken. In a darkly comical twist, Sutherland is unperturbed about his own credibility after chairing both Goldman Sachs International and BP, two outfits that have played Russian roulette with the global economy and the environment.

Capitalist buccaneers like Sutherland have been egged on by Olli Rehn and his kindred spirits in the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund: men in expensive suits who camouflage their true intentions with a calm demeanour and impenetrable jargon.

TB makes a comeback

One especially depressing aspect of these cuts is that it they are facilitating a rise in the incidence of diseases most of us associate more with historical memoirs like Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt than with present-day Europe. London has the highest rate of tuberculosis among western European capitals. Detected TB cases there increased from 2,300 in 1999 to over 3,400 a decade later. The homeless, chronic drug users and people who had been in prison are most at risk.

Brussels, meanwhile, has the same rate of TB as it did 20 years ago (30 cases for every 100,000 inhabitants). About half of all TB victims here are so poor they lack adequate shelter or only eat one meal a day. A recent study published in the magazine Homeless in Europe blamed the persistence of the problem on underfunding. One of the two health centres that provided treatment for TB in this city was closed down last year.
Migrants across the EU frequently encounter problems in securing accommodation. An estimated 30% of the 100,000 undocumented migrants in the Netherlands are people whose applications for asylum have been rejected. They are neither allowed to work nor to live in social housing.
Rather than examining how to help these people, our MEPs will this week approve a plan to strengthen Frontex, the EU’s agency for kicking foreigners out of Europe. In so doing, they will perpetuate the myth that building a bigger fortress makes us safer and wealthier. The truth is that the only purpose served by following an agenda dictated by the far-right is to let nastiness and bigotry prevail.

·First published by New Europe (, 12 September 2011.

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