Statistics show that homelessness is on the rise in every EU country except Finland. While there are all sorts of homeless people and different types of homelessness, each instance is a tragedy for society.
People without a permanent home are often invisible and frequently fall off the edge of the recorded world.
A YMCA study entitled Homeless Human Evolution shows that 40 children under the age of four were referred to one of the organisation’s homeless shelters last year. The YMCA study also found that 517 children under 18 were homeless in the past 10 years.
Researcher Julia Chetcuti says that the increase in the referral of children aged four and under is “a clear indication that whole families are increasingly becoming at risk of homelessness.” This assessment is in line with National Statistics Office figures which confirm that in 2021, a fifth of the population was at risk of poverty and social exclusion.
YMCA and other NGOs working on the coalface of deprivation in our society contribute immensely to providing immediate relief to those who barely exist on the fringes of our apparently affluent society. But their work could be more effective if actionable strategies were to be coordinated with all those who deal with the different aspects of homelessness.
The problem of homelessness requires more than one solution because it is more than a single problem.
The causes of homelessness in Malta were identified clearly in the YMCA report, and they are not so different from those in most other EU countries. They include a lack of affordable housing, poverty and unemployment, escape from violent relationships or abusive childhood homes, relationship breakdown, substance misuse and mental and physical health problems.
A strategy to address homelessness must not offer one-size-fits-all solutions. The solution to one person’s homelessness problem might only provide temporary respite for another. While addressing the symptomatic issues of homelessness can be beneficial, it will not automatically fix the root cause of an individual’s circumstances.
Some countries, like Finland, appear to have quite effective strategies in place for dealing with homelessness.
A World Economic Forum report explains why Finland is more successful in dealing with the phenomenon. The report points out that there can be a number of reasons why someone ends up homeless, including sudden job loss or family breakdown, severe substance abuse or mental health problems.
But then it adds: “… most homelessness policies work on the premise that the homeless person must sort those problems out first before getting permanent accommodation. Finland does the opposite – it gives them a home first.”
The scarcity of affordable housing in Malta is already acute despite some mild attempts by the government to invest in more social housing schemes. While unemployment levels are at a record low, inadequate wages and precarious work conditions make it difficult for many to afford decent housing for themselves and their families.
Still, affordable housing on its own will not be enough to reduce homelessness. The homeless need constant support. At the same time as being given a home, they need to receive individually tailored support services. These services can range from medical assistance to deal with developmental disorders and mental illness to special training to develop skills that would improve employability and general life management.
There is no quick fix to all life situations, but a well-structured strategy defined by all stakeholders working in concert – such as NGOs, government agencies, researchers and policymakers – could provide the foundations for improving the welfare of the homeless.