faith in action

Combatting Homelessness at UN’s 58th Commission for Social Development

For United Methodists, we work to eradicate homelessness because all persons are entitled to dwelling places that provide for safety, privacy and recreation. Our church teachings hold governments responsible for guaranteeing the rights to adequate shelter.

United Methodists work to eradicate homelessness because we believe all persons are entitled to dwelling places that provide safety, privacy and recreation.

Church and Society participated with other civil society organizations, member states, and homelessness experts at the 58th Annual session of the United Nations Commission for Social Development with the priority theme of “affordable housing and social protection systems for all to address homelessness.” At a day-long discussion on February 14, we aimed at developing “a global understanding of homelessness, how to reduce it, and what policies we can advocate for.”

Forum moderator Joanna Padgett Herz, Project Coordinator for the Institute of Global Homelessness, noted the pertinence of examining this theme on Valentine’s Day because, as Cornel West said, “justice is what love looks like in public.”

The panel explored barriers from reducing homelessness worldwide. Experts agreed, including the UN’s Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Co-ordination and Inter-Agency Affairs Maria Francesca Spatolisano, that the lack of a universal definition of homelessness stalls progress. It’s not a mere bureaucratic triviality since it allows governments to justify their failure in helping various marginalized populations.

Noting significant, problematic gaps in available data, Spatolisano put our best current estimate of people experiencing homelessness globally around 100 million. “We can address poverty together, as it exists, with multisectoral partnerships, or it will continue to divide us,” she said.

Activists working on a definition have been wary of leaving anyone behind, as people experience homelessness in a range of ways. But, after some tweaking, there’s general consensus. UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and the NGO Committee for Social Development stated jointly,

“We endorse the proposed definition of the Nairobi Expert Group on ending homelessness: homelessness is a condition where a person or household lacks habitable space with security of tenure, rights and ability to enjoy social relations, including safety. Homelessness is a manifestation of extreme poverty, and a failure of multiple systems and the implementation of human rights.”

Rosanne Haggerty, President of Community Solutions, raised alarms about how the rules around eligibility for services too often further victimize people who are struggling. In response, her organization examines what each specific community needs to achieve zero homelessness and goes from there. “It’s like ending polio,” she said. “You have to start with smart teams committed to the end state, then adapt and respond instead of pursuing a rigid plan.”

By finding creative ways to push through individual and institutionalized barriers to service, her organization’s “Built for Zero” collaborative has reduced street homelessness in Times Square by 83% over three years. Haggerty identified key drivers to success: a shared, measurable goal, a flexible arsenal of resources, a testable menu of technical strategies, and a real-time, by-name feedback loop of information aimed at closing the “accountability gap.”

Padgett Herz and Ifeyinwa Ofong of WorldWIDE Nigeria Network explained how economic discrimination against women and LGBT youth, especially those who also disabled or non-white, are disproportionately impacted by homelessness.

“One in four people suffer from hunger, which means that about 40-50% of people in Africa and some parts of Asian region live below the poverty line, having a daily income that is on average below $1.25,” Ofong said.

In other words, to address homelessness we need policies that attack poverty from different angles – social protection floors and programs that provide access to safe and affordable housing for all, for example.

We asked what civil society groups like Church and Society can do to help, besides advocating for immediate multilateral action around Sustainable Development Goal 1. For United Methodists, the SDGs are aligned with our mandate of spreading peace with justice, so discussing them within our communities is an excellent way to start mobilizing.

“Civil society can assist and pressure governments to provide disaggregated data,” Ofong replied. “We cannot plan without data.”

Participants noted that more data is especially urgent regarding the relationship between corporate accountability and social iniquity. We do know the most common factors that drive people to homelessness almost always come in some kind of combination: poverty, mental illness, substance abuse & dependency, climate disaster, predatory lending and other scams, unemployment, institutionalized discrimination, domestic violence, lack of access to services, etc.

After a 2019 study revealed that the Irish spent a higher percentage of their income on rent than any other country, forum organizers reached out for the Irish perspective. Activist Elizabeth Madden spoke about her lived experiences with homelessness in Ireland. When asked what one thing she wished she’d had when first impacted by homelessness, Madden described needing not a thing, but one intervention early in life. Subjected to recurrent traumatic experiences starting from childhood, she believes a timely intervention could’ve changed the trajectory of her journey – that’s why she advocates for intervening services for those vulnerable to homelessness.

Organizational approach matters, she said. “Offering the right type of support means a side-by-side team effort, listening to the lived experience of clients and trusting their voice.” What do bad practices look like? “Shaming or blaming the client instead of listening.”

To close the meeting, civil society called on member states to deliver on the commitments they made when adopting the 2030 agenda back in 2015, especially those commitments pertaining to funding equitable social development and treating the source causes of homelessness.

United Methodists work to eradicate homelessness because throughout the Gospels we find Jesus seeking out homes for retreat, renewal, fellowship and hospitality. We believe all persons are entitled to dwelling places that provide for safety, privacy, and recreation. The Social Principles statement declares: “we hold governments responsible for…guarantee of the rights to adequate…shelter.“ (¶ 164A). We reaffirm this right as well as the assertion of the 1972 General Conference that ‘housing for low income persons should be given top priority’ (1972 Book of Resolutions). The need for adequate housing at affordable costs is critical today. Love for neighbor demands that Christians care about how adequately their neighbors are sheltered (Book of Resolutions 2012, 3262, pg. 381).

For more information on the SDGs please visit the SDG Knowledge Platform.