Members of a group based at DePaul University in Chicago went to the United Nations in February as part of an effort to urge U.N. member countries to agree on a definition of homelessness, and then commit to measuring their own homeless populations.
“We know what gets measured gets paid attention to,” said Lydia Stazen, director of the Institute of Global Homelessness, a joint effort of DePaul University and London-based DePaul International.
The institute has been part of the NGO Working Group to End Homelessness since the working group was founded by Vincentian Father Guillermo Campuzano in 2017. The group includes non-governmental organizations from around the world.
Campuzano taught and ministered at DePaul University before becoming the Vincentians’ representative to the United Nations in 2015. He will return to DePaul in March as vice president for mission and ministry.
The Institute of Global Homelessness has provided research and other resources to the working group, which includes about 40 non-governmental organizations from around the world, Stazen said.
The working group was invited to the U.N. for the annual meeting of the Commission on Social Development, which was held Feb. 10-19. This year, the commission’s theme was “Affordable housing and social protection systems for all to address homelessness.”
Stazen said it’s been difficult to persuade the U.N. member countries to focus on the issue of homelessness, which looks different in different parts of the world.
“This is the first meaningful conversation on homelessness to happen in the U.N. since 1987,” Stazen said in a phone interview from New York. “The two main things we are advocating for are a globally inclusive definition of homelessness and a commitment to measure the homeless population.”
The Institute of Global Homelessness is proposing a definition based on it’s framework of three broad categories of inadequate shelter: those without accommodations, such as those who sleep on the streets, under bridges or in cars; those with temporary shelter, such as those in overnight shelters or those in refugee camps; and those with inadequate, insecure or unsafe shelter, such as those sleeping on friends’ or relatives’ couches, those living in situations of domestic violence and those living in non-conventional buildings or temporary structures in slums or informal settlements.
The working group is also asking U.N. representatives to listen directly to people who have experienced being homeless, she said.
Some countries are further along than others. The United States, for example, has a definition of homelessness used by the federal government and makes annual estimates of the homeless population. In 2017, the last year for which data was available, the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that there were more than 553,000 homeless people in the nation.
Some countries, such as Finland, have all but eliminated the category of people sleeping on the street, and have a small population in shelters, Stazen said. That has allowed Finland to focus its efforts on those in inadequate or insecure housing.
While representatives of U.N. member countries are meeting with NGOs to learn about the problem and possible solutions, they are meeting amongst themselves to discuss whether to adopt a definition of homelessness and negotiate what it will say. While Stazen is not privy to the negotiations, she does not expect them to be simple or easy.
“I think that the whole thing will be difficult for member states to swallow,” she said. “Some countries don’t want to admit they have a problem, or some of them don’t have the resources to address the problem, and they don’t want to talk about that.”
However, during its meetings, IGH has had several countries reach out independently to see what resources the institute can provide.
“It’s very hopeful that they want to work with us,” Stazen said.
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