October 17, 2020

'Hope in a Time of Pandemic' Issue Spotlight #7 - Housing

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally increased the urgency of issues of housing and homelessness and the critical need to put the dignity and well-being of those without a home at the centre of the pandemic response. Homelessness is a cross-cutting issue across the globe and is often attributed to the failure of multiple social, political and economic systems. Approximately, 1.8 billion people do not live in adequate housing. The pandemic is likely to see this number escalate due to the alarming levels of unemployment, loss of livelihoods, poverty, gender-based violence and the lack of social protection and labour rights in many countries. Those living without a home, rough sleeping and living in temporary accommodation are further compounded by other difficulties, including personal and structural drivers of homelessness, making it increasingly difficult for them to be protected from contracting COVID-19. To truly build back better, the issue of homelessness must be addressed with urgency to foster a more just, equitable and humane society.

What has been revealed in terms of housing:

1. The interconnectedness of housing and health

As the pandemic unfolded and ‘stay at home’ orders, physical distancing and lockdown measures became the ‘new normal’, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Leilani Farha, stated “housing has become the front-line of defence against the coronavirus. Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation”. For those lacking adequate shelter and access to hygiene and sanitation facilities, following the protection measures enacted to safeguard public health has been much more difficult. The need for non-congregate, accessible and affordable housing is vital to protect the health of those experiencing homelessness. Those living in informal settlements, cramped conditions and experiencing poverty and violence, are the most vulnerable to the health and socio-economic impacts of the pandemic. Protection of their health and well-being is a concern  across the Mercy World:

“Due to very high population density, it’s not possible to observe social distancing in slums.” (Mercy Sister, Kenya)

“We Papua New Guineans are communitarian people; we live together in one house making social distancing an almost impossible challenge.” (Mercy Sister, Papua New Guinea)

The relationship between mental health and a lack of adequate housing has also been revealed. The uncertainty and continued changes of environment for people experiencing homelessness can be extremely traumatic and emotionally distressing. This distress has been further intensified by the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and the threats it brings to the economy and public life. Research shows that severe mental health difficulties are more prevalent among people experiencing homelessness and that the longer a person lives on the street, the more likely they are to experience anxiety, depression, substance abuse and violence of some form. Hence, the provision of a place to call home is essential not only for sustaining physical health but mental health too. 

2. COVID-19 has further exacerbated the global housing crisis

Even before the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the cost of housing was rapidly rising making long term affordability a huge challenge for many low income, disadvantaged and marginalised individuals and families. UN Human Rights experts have highlighted that the global housing crisis has resulted in mass human rights violations and is due to the promotion of unsustainable economic growth and an exploitative economic model which centres profit over people. The rapid growth among the homeless population has resulted in the increased promotion of short-term interventions, an over reliance on the private sector to provide housing to low-income families, and a lack of outcome oriented systems by governments and local authorities.  These short-term interventions often include homeless shelters that are overcrowded and reduce the freedoms, dignity and social equality of those staying there, as they do not offer the social and psychological supports which are often needed.

As the global housing crisis meets the global health crisis, there is an increased risk of forced evictions with  families and individuals struggling  to pay their rent. Many rent freezes and eviction moratorium which were brought in under emergency legislation in some countries during lockdown are being lifted causing increased uncertainty. The lack of social protection floors to ensure access to shelter, income protection and universal healthcare, compounded with the current economic instability, increases the vulnerabilities of people at risk of homelessness. This is especially evident for migrant workers who have lost their livelihoods due to COVID-19.

3. The Mercy World continues to be a leading ministry helping those vulnerable to or experiencing homelessness

Mercy Sisters, Associates and Partners in ministries around the world continue to actively advocate at local and international level for a people-centred and community-centred approach to tackle and address the root causes and drivers of homelessness.  The Mercy World fosters the dignity and social and economic potentials of all people experiencing homelessness. Many Mercy communities working on the ground with women, girls and families address the personal and structural drivers of homelessness and provide shelter, support and resources to those in need. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Mercy communities have continued to provide essential services to those living on the streets and in temporary accommodation.

“It is indeed a privilege to serve the poor… and to offer them in Mercy some of the necessities, comforts and supports which so many of us often take for granted.” (Mercy Sister, Newfoundland)

What are we being called to?

  • Advocate for the human right to adequate housing: To feel safe and secure, everyone needs a home. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 25, para.1, UDHR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 11, para.1, ICESCR) regard housing as one cornerstone of the right to an adequate standard of living. Adequate housing should be inclusive, safe, supportive, affordable and accessible to enable individuals and families to live dignified lives. Governments must understand that social housing is an important investment to society and relying on the provision of housing by the private sector is unsustainable.
  • Promote a new opportunity to reshape housing policy: The COVID-19 pandemic presents a new opportunity to encourage governments around the world to enact policies that address the root causes of homelessness and protect the human right to housing by focusing on permanent, adequate, inclusive, non-discriminatory and non-congregate housing (SDG 11.1). Governments around the world should include those with lived experience of homelessness in policy-making and use their knowledge and expertise to better allocate resources, nurturing more functional, sustainable and dignified communities.
  • Show gratitude for essential workers who are working tirelessly to uphold the health and well-being of all.
  • Spread the word across your own social media platforms by sharing ‘Hope in a Time of Pandemic’ and MIA Global Action’s infographic on COVID-19 and Housing. Please engage with us on Twitter @MIAGlobalAction and @MercyWorldwide.

Learn More

Messages to: Siobhan Golden - MGA Intern

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