The Phenomenon of Homelessness (só disponível em Inglês)

Laboratório de Investimento Social
“Estimates of the world´s homeless population in addition to those living in poor housing conditions reach figures of 1 Billion, including 3 Million in Western Europe.”                               

Homelessness is a growing problem in cities all over the world. Estimates of the world´s homeless population in addition to those living in poor housing conditions reach figures of 1 Billion, including 3 Million in Western Europe.

The issue of homelessness is a sociological inquiry that has been relatively understudied so far, albeit the phenomenon´s unremitting development in the world. Furthermore, homelessness is not an easily defined term, as the notion encompasses a dimension more exhaustive than a singular definition of “an individual without residence”. According to experts, it is defined as a culmination of a long process of economic hardship, isolation, and social dislocation. Additionally, states of vagrancy may come in varying forms, such as street residence, temporary habitation in shelters, or assistance from service organizations. The experience of the destitute is understandably a harsh reality as many homeless persons have to contend with abysmal living conditions, pitiable hygiene, unsanitary food, and inadequate nutrition.

Homelessness in Portugal

Despite the fact that there are, so far, no official data on the number of homeless on a national level in Portugal, the most credible but unimproved data from 2013 of the Social Security Institute information system record 4.420 people in “active homeless situations” (FEANTSA Country Fiche Portugal, 2013), meaning that they were receiving social support at that point in time. As for the financial costs of homelessness in Portugal, little research has been done so far. Studies from FEANTSA give insights in “per situation” costs, public expenses occurring when a homeless person stays one night in a shelter, hospital, emergency facility or prison.

Entering homelessness is most commonly the result of structural and individualistic explanations. Structural explanations are based on the social and economic structures in a country or region such as poverty, insufficient social protection and services, high unemployment as well as a lack of affordable housing. Individualistic explanations suggest that people get homeless due to personal problems such as mental illnesses, addictions, low educational level or violence (Busch-Geertsema et. al, 2010a).

Linkage between Homelessness and Mental Health Issues

Mental health issues are not only a trigger for homelessness but also a consequence. People with mental illnesses are often unable to pursue their daily life duties such as employment, maintaining a relationships or their households. This group of people is much more likely to become homeless than people in stable environments. Being a consequence of homelessness, the effects depend heavily on the length of the situation, whereby even a short spell can have an immense influence on a person´s chance of reintegration. Longer spells have irreversible effects, such as a lower life expectancy as well as discrimination and isolation of the society. It is likely that a homeless person develops “personality disorders, offending behavior, learning difficulties, physical health problems or vulnerability because of premature aging, abuse of alcohol, drugs, malnutrition as well as limited access to healthcare. In any case, escaping homelessness by own means is difficult due to obstacles such as the non-possession of a fixed address, clean and proper clothing as well as the possibility of transportation.

Costs and Effects

Homelessness does not only generate negative impact on the people living the situation, but also for the society in general. These include: costs of providing services to prevent and reduce homelessness; costs occurring for health and social services, which are generally used more frequently by homeless; costs for  criminal justice, which are also more frequent due to an increased alcohol and drug consumption that increases the level of aggression; shortfall in taxes and social contributions due to the unemployment of homeless; possible costs of visible street homelessness, due to the belief that visible rough sleeping is detrimental to trade, tourism and sometimes to societal cohesion.

According to the report by “The State of Homelessness” from 2013, the costs of reacting to homelessness in Canada amount to $US 5.3 billion annually. Other estimates from Australia state that people experiencing homelessness cost the government twice the amount ($US 21 800) spent on social services than stably housed people ($US 10 900). Studies from the United States show that more than 30% of the homeless are individuals with mental illnesses, costing the taxpayers an average of $US 40 500 a year for their use of emergency rooms, psychiatric hospitals, shelters and prisons.

In the light of an increasing population being at risk of poverty in Portugal, the inefficiency of traditional support programs for homeless individuals as well as the high financial costs for taxpayers, the need for innovative and cost efficient interventions increases.

Malou-Anne Wahn

Malou integrates the second edition of the SIB research Programme and is currently developing a feasibility study for a Social Impact Bond for the intervention methodology of Housing First in Portugal.


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