Sitting comfortably in our homes, we hardly ever spare a thought for the less fortunate which, according to a leading sociologist calling for a "workable" housing policy, could be a lot more than one would like to think.

We take the mouth-watering dinner on the table, the glass of wine, the burning fireplace in the cold months or the air conditioner during the intolerable summer, for granted. Meanwhile, others are either walking the silent streets looking for a place where to spend the cold night, or are packed tighter than sardines in a can in a shelter for the homeless.

In a study on the housing policy in Malta, now available in book-form, Cyrus Vakili-Zad, an urban sociologist, quotes the latest available statistics on the homeless situation in Malta. It is documented that there are a total of 519 homeless people living in Malta, consisting of 355 adults and 164 children, spread over various categories.

Working on this data, Dr Vakili-Zad estimates that 17,063 adults and children risk becoming homeless, again spread over various categories. The main cause for this is sub-standard or inadequate housing, with 13,612 people (12,108 adults and 1,504 children) living in dwellings that lack one or more amenities, such as an indoor toilet, hot and cold running water, electrical power and other vital resources.

Further categories include: Those doubled-up, or, rather, living with friends or families (2,765, of whom 1,962 are adults and 803 children), children under 16 who have relatives in Malta but, whose potential care-givers are unable or unwilling to take care of them (245), St Luke's Hospital patients (200 adults), those living in life-threatening situations because of structural deficiencies in their dwellings (190 adults), those who are older than 16 and have remained in "hostels" and "homes" due to a lack of appropriate accommodation (43) and prisoners (eight adults).

But what caused these unfortunate souls to weep outside locked doors?

"In Malta, it seems the major factor (for people becoming homeless) is family breakdown as a result of domestic violence and abuse," Dr Vakili-Zad said in an interview with The Times.

Thus, victims are mainly women and children. "The fact that a large percentage of women are economically inactive and, adding to that the male-dominated family culture in Malta, traps women in unequal power relationships" which are inescapable without dire consequences.

"Homelessness is a 'collateral' damage of the working of a capitalist economy system. Yet, in addition to the homeless, there are much larger groups who are at risk of becoming homeless - they are homeless in waiting - they are a pay cheque away, a rise in rent, a sudden illness, a monthly mortgage missed or another fight with the husband and another case of child abuse. This is the group (that) needs (the) government's attention - the fight never ends".

The Istanbul Declaration of Human Rights lays down that "The right to adequate housing is a universal declaration of human rights," but Malta has not signed this and therefore has no legislation declaring the right to housing, the sociologist pointed out.

"The homeless in Malta believe it is their fault and feel ashamed to show their faces and admit they are homeless. In North America and Western Europe the (homeless situation) is an open problem and believed to be a systematic and social problem. Thus, the homeless demand services and permanent housing.

"Without a policy, no solutions can be found. However, the first step to draw up a policy is for the government to admit that homelessness does exist and then, with the help of agencies supporting the homeless, to draw up a workable policy".

The government is aware of this problem "but prefers to ignore it - as long as it is hidden, (the) government can deny it". Nothing is being done to tackle this problem other than minimum financial assistance that is made to non-governmental organisations (NGOs), Dr Vakili-Zad said.

Although such agencies provide a "scaffolding" for the homeless these people "need permanent housing (not) a shelter".

One such agency is YMCA Homeless. Dr Vakili-Zad said:

"YMCA, as a lead agency, should not only provide transitional and support services, but by collecting, storing and publishing data impact the development of the policy on the homeless. YMCA should also get involved in establishing a cooperative housing corporation and manage housing projects. Social housing in many countries in the European Union is managed by housing associations and cooperative housing corporations.

"The best way (for others to chip in) is to help agencies assisting the homeless, like YMCA, and asking (MPs) to raise the issue in... Parliament".

Dr Vakili-Zad said he felt there is not enough awareness of the problem among the public.

The book - Housing Policy In Malta - was published by YMCA Valletta, in collaboration with the Department of Public Policy of the University of Malta and with the support of HSBC Bank Malta.


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