Euroviews. There is so much more we could do for those experiencing homelessness

A homeless man sleeps on a bench at a bus stop on the outskirts of Kyiv, June 2022
A homeless man sleeps on a bench at a bus stop on the outskirts of Kyiv, June 2022 Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
By Matthew Carter OBE
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Homelessness is solvable. Yet, it remains the most pressing social issue without meaningful international recognition, coordination or funding, Matthew Carter OBE writes.

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Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which began two years ago, was an event that changed the world. Sadly, we hear every day from our colleagues in Ukraine how the situation on the ground is as grave as it ever has been.

The war in Ukraine and other conflicts around the world is one of the most pressing global drivers of homelessness. 

UN figures show 85% of the total population of Gaza — 1.9 million civilians — have been forcibly displaced since the beginning of the war. 

In Iraq, the war of 2003 resulted in millions of people migrating to different cities for safety, where they have settled in makeshift shelters for years. 

There are nearly 3.7 million internally displaced people in Ukraine, and after heavy destruction of buildings, Depaul International’s data shows two-thirds of people surveyed are living in inadequate accommodation.

Homelessness isn't just caused by the destruction of buildings

In the last 35 years, I’ve worked all over the world, assisting people displaced by natural disasters, wars and conflict. 

I know behind these staggering statistics are brave people leaving behind everything they know and love — homes, careers, relatives and friends — not knowing if they’ll ever return. 

While in Mogadishu, Somalia, I met a mother who had been displaced, hiding under plastic sheeting with her two children, terrified about being moved from their makeshift home and becoming homeless again. The memory of this image will live with me forever.

While we must ensure humanitarian aid reaches those who need it and houses are repaired following shelling, it isn't going to be enough to keep people off the streets long term.
Nila Zelinska holds a doll belonging to her granddaughter she found in her destroyed house in Potashnya, in the outskirts of Kyiv, May 2022
Nila Zelinska holds a doll belonging to her granddaughter she found in her destroyed house in Potashnya, in the outskirts of Kyiv, May 2022AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko

After working in Ukraine throughout the 2014 war and in the aftermath, our teams know first-hand how homelessness driven by conflict can last way beyond the end of the fighting. 

It's not just caused by the destruction of buildings. Wider root causes such as breakdown of support networks, past trauma, poor mental health, using substances to cope, and economic issues causing loss of employment, are fundamentally the same wherever you are but they are endemic in conflict zones and for those who have fled.

While we must ensure humanitarian aid reaches those who need it and houses are repaired following shelling, it isn't going to be enough to keep people off the streets long term. Just as is the case in other countries Depaul operates in across Europe, helping people cope with those wider root causes requires specialist support.

Processing trauma is a colossal task

Veterans globally are among the groups most at risk, and recently in Ukraine I met several men of different ages who had fought in Chechnya, Afghanistan and now Ukraine wars. 

They all talked of losing their families and homes and the destructive impact of drugs and alcohol when trying to overcome trauma. 

Communities in Ukraine are already starting to request psychological support for men being discharged and we know how important this will be as many accessing our rough sleeping services are veterans of pre-2022 conflicts.

As an issue, [homelessness] needs international political recognition, coordination of what policies and programmes work and importantly, ongoing investment.
Serhiy Malyshenko, a decorated veteran, holds a box with his military medals that he retrieved from the ruins of his house in Yasnohorodka on the outskirts of Kyiv, March 2022
Serhiy Malyshenko, a decorated veteran, holds a box with his military medals that he retrieved from the ruins of his house in Yasnohorodka on the outskirts of Kyiv, March 2022AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

Mirroring services we run in Ireland and Slovakia, we have opened the first shelter of its kind in Odesa which allows those under the influence of alcohol or other substances to get help. 

We are repairing homes in Kharkiv following the attacks in January but at the same time, we have mobile teams of therapists driving to the same villages to help families begin to process their trauma.

Globally, the picture is stark. The latest data shows an increase in all countries that track data except for two. 

Last year, the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless, Feantsa, said nearly one million people experienced homelessness on any given night across Europe.

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A solvable issue that needs the world to come together

It is a statement of fact that homelessness is a solvable issue. Yet despite clear global drivers and trends that are repeated time and time again across borders, it remains the most pressing social issue without meaningful international recognition, coordination or funding. 

It’s not referenced in the Sustainable Development Goals and despite countries like Finland showing it is indeed solvable, there is currently no international requirement for countries to follow suit.

To begin to address the impact of wars on rising homelessness in Europe and globally, we not only need specialist homelessness services but as an issue, it needs international political recognition, coordination of what policies and programmes work and importantly, ongoing investment. 

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria showed us what can happen when the global community truly comes together on a solvable problem. 

While the eradication of malaria or HIV/AIDS and the eradication of homelessness are not the same thing, homelessness is an equally solvable issue. In an ever-volatile world, addressing it is becoming more and more urgent.

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Matthew Carter OBE is Group CEO of Depaul International.

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