During the first two decades of this century, our European cities have been faced with a new, and rather gloomy, phenomenon: a massive increase in the number of homeless. The economic crisis pushed many Europeans into poverty and led to an increase in homelessness.

In turn, this gave rise to another new phenomenon: aporophobia. Similar to other phobias (such as homophobia, islamophobia, xenophobia), this is the fear towards poverty and poor people.

As a result, homeless people have become victims of physical attacks and verbal insults. Despite the fact that the phenomenon is not a European one, Spaniard activists pushed their politicians to include aporophobia in the country’s latest anti-hate speech legislation.

In an interview with European Interest, José Manuel Caballol, who heads RAIS (a leading Spanish foundation that fights for the rights of homeless and against homelessness), paints a picture of the actual situation of homelessness in Spain. He also describes the phenomenon of hate attacks.

According to Caballol, today’s homelessness is a result of the difficulties people face to access affordable housing. He points to a lack of housing policies and measures to protect the homeless, as well as the failure of the welfare systems in many European societies.

RAIS, says Caballol, is calling on the EU to develop and finance a European Housing First strategy through ESF (European Social Fund). Its aim will be to help launch national strategies to fight homelessness. Its goal is for there to no one sleeping rough by 2030.

European Interest: Until now, according to the RAIS, a third of homeless people have either been insulted or abused, and this problem is on the rise. Does this mean there is a lack of solidarity within Spanish society today? Is this a new phenomenon?

José Manuel Caballol: Aporophobia (hatred towards poor people) is not a new phenomenon, nor a Spanish problem. It exists in all the European Countries, but until now it has been a hidden phenomenon here. European and Spanish law doesn’t recognise aporophobia among the causes of discrimination and therefore, neither as an aggravating factor for crimes. As a result, there have not been official records on these crimes. Some years ago, some NGOs began to focus on this problem and decided to create the HATEnto observatory (https://raisfundacion.org/en/hatento). This project managed research about hate crimes against homeless people and launched a campaign to include aporophobia in the Spanish dictionary. This year we got a senator to presents a proposal of law to include aporophobia as an aggravating factor in penal law.

What do you think is fuelling the attacks against homeless people? What are the main reasons?

The main reason for all hate crimes is always fear. Fear of different people. But in our research, we found other factors. On the one hand, 10% of the attacks are carried out by police. On the other hand, the most common aggressors are groups of young people who go out to party. They consider attacking homeless people as part of the party. For this to happen, there is a previous process: depersonalisation. People who attack, insult, or discriminate against other people believe that under these people there is not a real person, a human being. For these young people, a homeless person sleeping rough is part of the urban landscape, like a trash can. And if I can kick a trash can, I can kick a homeless person. Finally, there are political groups in Spain and Europe who are encouraging hatred against poor people: immigrants, refugees, Roma people. These kinds of people are creating an atmosphere that favors these crimes.

A proposal to make aporophobia a criminal offence will be put to a vote in the Senate in September. Including these types of attacks in the same category as other hate crimes is a remarkable step for the country’s legal system. Has there been a substantial debate about this issue in Spanish society? Are political parties really concerned about the fate of homeless people?

At RAIS, we are trying to encourage this debate. Until now there has not been enough knowledge and interest about homelessness among political parties, nor among civil organisations, universities and society in general. Homelessness is not an easy cause. Citizens believe that homeless people chose to sleep on the streets and reject the help that is offered to them. NGOs working with homelessness have not made political proposals or campaigns for citizens. In the last four years, we began to focus on this kind of work and we are starting to see the first results now, such us the proposal you are talking about, the first national strategy approved in 2015, and the inclusion of homelessness people among the beneficiaries of the national housing plan (can you believe they were not included before!!!?). At RAIS now, one of our main goals is to put homelessness on the political agenda, and we are working hard to achieve this.

According to the latest reports, the situation in many EU countries is worrying. Homelessness appears to be on the rise. Homeless people are often associated with A-social behaviour, alcoholism and mental illness. However, observing Europe’s new homeless, there’s a different image. The new homeless people are more victims of the economic crisis and restrictions in welfare politics in EU countries. Do you agree with this view? How do you explain this, particularly in the rich economies of the EU?

I can not agree with this difference between the old and new homeless. Homelessness is not an individual problem. Homelessness is a structural phenomenon. The difficulties for affordable housing access, the lack of housing policies and measures to protect people without housing, the failure of the welfare system for people who are strongly excluded are the main reasons for homelessness. New homeless people will eventually be old homeless if we don’t act. Alcoholism, A–social behavior and mental illness are present in some homeless people’s lives, but many times they are consequences of homelessness not the cause. In cases that these problems exist previously, there is a process by which people end up becoming homeless, and in this process the system has failed. People are responsible for their lives, and some homeless people have made wrong decisions in their lives, but who hasn’t? Homelessness is not a personal decision. Nobody wants to live on the streets. Homelessness is not a consequence of wrong personal decisions either. Homelessness is a structural failure of the welfare system, which should provide affordable housing to everybody who needs it.

Experts have warned that ultra-low interest rates across the Western world have inflated the price of housing. Do you think interest rate policies affect homelessness?

Of course I do. If homelessness is principally a housing issue, the price of affordable housing in Europe and especially in Spain affect homeless people. First, because it is more difficult and expensive to obtain houses for Housing First projects, second because more people lose their houses and they increase the risk of becoming homeless. In Spain, we are going through a housing crisis at the moment. Nowadays it is more difficult to find affordable housing if you are working than to find a job if you have a stable housing situation. In fact, there are many homeless people working and living in a shelter because is not possible for them to pay for an affordable house.  All the governments in Europe think that employment is the main solution for inclusion, but this is not true for homelessness and other disadvantaged groups who are very far from the labor market. We could protect the lack of housing just as we do with unemployment. I’m sure this is more efficient and cheaper than continuing to build shelters.

The European Central Bank is mounting pressure on lenders to offload non-performing loans, including mortgages. Do you fear a new wave of homelessness in Southern Europe?

In Europe and Spain, homelessness has been rising in recent years, but there has not been a wave of new homeless. This is because people don’t automatically become homeless when they lose their home. Becoming homeless is a complicated process that can take years. Obviously, if you have more unprotected people, and more difficulties for housing access you have a big number of people at risk of becoming be homeless and homeless people have more problems getting out of their situation.

I wish to reflect on the apparent lack of interest shown by mainstream political parties about the issue of homelessness. Do you think the fact that people who sleep rough on the streets are generally apolitical is the reason for politicians’ disinterest? Or do you think that political parties simply do not have any proposals to address this problem?

Homelessness is not a state and it is not a permanent problem. I think that is why there aren’t homelessness associations or trade unions lobbying. If you have a disability or mental illness this is a permanent problem. Your cause is to improve your life, but you cannot make your disability disappear. Nobody wants to be homeless and it is more difficult to organise actions against a situation you want to stop experiencing. On the other hand, there is not a huge number of homeless people. A problem which affects 31,000 people in Spain, for instance, is not a big quantitative problem. In addition, homeless people have frequently broken relationships with their relatives, and most of them don’t want to appear in public because their families don’t know they are homeless. It is difficult to be noticed in these circumstances. Political parties have no idea about homelessness. Normally, they don’t know anything about this problem. Nevertheless, our experience lobbying about homelessness with politicians is that there are more of them who are interested in it when we explain the problem and propose solutions. At RAIS, we are trying to change the system of care for homeless people. We are part of a European movement that is convincing politicians and citizens that the traditional “Staircase system” of care, where homeless people must overcome various steps and demonstrate that they deserve and are prepared for housing, doesn’t work. We are proposing a housing led approach and developing Housing First projects that have demonstrated capability of significantly reducing the amount of homelessness. Housing first is a recovery-oriented approach to ending homelessness that focuses on quickly moving people experiencing homelessness into independent, affordable and permanent housing and then providing additional support and services as needed. Housing First uses housing as a starting point rather than and end goal. In Spain we started the Housing First model in 2014 and now there are 500 Housing First units in 12 different regions. And this growth would not be possible without the commitment of politicians. We have been explaining and convincing politicians that ending homelessness is possible for four years and many of the them are acting now.

Which are, according to RAIS, the most realistic and feasible measures that EU societies could take in order to solve the problem of homelessness?

End rough sleeping: Developing and co-financing a European Housing First strategy through ESF driven to launch national strategies with the main goal that nobody sleeps on the streets by 2030. Convert the “staircase system” using Housing Led approaches. Empty the shelters gradually and replace them with housing in the community.  Shelters could be used for temporary emergencies. Prevention. Launch European research about the ways that people become homeless and boost “no second night” programmes to identify the first experience of homelessness and avoid people beginning the process. Encourage a housing protection system to ensure nobody lacks affordable housing. Encourage European regulation for social businesses that employ excluded people and give excluded people the special work protection that people with disabilities have already have. Include aporophobia among the causes of discrimination in European Law.

José Manuel Caballol, CEO of RAIS @jmcaballol www.raisfundacion.org/en