February 25, 2020

Mercy Global Action Calls for Inclusive Housing Policies

Mary McAleese at the MGA co-sponsored event, “The Hidden Faces of Family Homelessness from the Perspective of Women and Children/Girls”

During 10-19 February, 2020, the 58th session of the United Nations Commission for Social Development (CSocD) met to discuss and respond to the theme "Affordable housing and social protection systems for all to address homelessness". Mercy International Association- Mercy Global Action contributed two oral statements to the Commission (read first and second here) and co-sponsored and participated in several key events and meetings. This marked the first time homelessness has ever been a priority theme at the United Nations.

The Call for Recognition

Key to MGA’s justice advocacy approach is listening to the experiences of the people and planet. Hearing the stories of people in their experience of homelessness, and simply asking what they need, were common in the best practices shared by agencies during the Commission. The inclusion of those currently experiencing homelessness, as well as survivors, is an important step towards more informed, and thus more effective, policy.  They are the experts. As in Catherine McAuley’s experience, “the patient hearing of their sorrows” is more valuable than any service agencies could contrive to provide without consulting the people who are experiencing homelessness.  Listening is a place anyone can start when addressing the issue of homelessness.  At one event, ‘Street Homelessness and Catholic Theological Ethics’, Fr. James Keenan SJ reminded everyone that, “our job is the job of recognition, to give face” and voice to people pushed to the margins of society.  Our everyday interactions with those rendered homeless can humanize society narrative, ease the stigma, and combat discrimination of the only people who are truly experts on homelessness.

At the MGA co-sponsored side event

MGA Advocates For A Human-Rights Approach to Homelessness

At CSocD, Mercy Global Action advocated for the human right to housing and against the inherent injustices, especially towards women and girls, in housing systems across the world. It was our hope that UN Member States would adopt the universally inclusive definition, as proposed by the Expert Group that met in Nairobi; however,  delegates were unable to agree on a definition which would have provided the necessary framework to promote concrete policy and accountability. However, it does not end here; housing intrinsically relates to all of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Adequate housing links directly to the wellbeing, development, and education of children, and a home is critical for all areas of growth over a lifetime.  Mercy Global Action will continue to advocate with the use of the Sustainable Development Goals on issues related to housing and homelessness.

In a Mercy Global Action co-sponsored side event “The Hidden Faces of Family Homelessness from the Perspective of Women and Children/Girls”, Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland, highlighted an often-overlooked factor in the housing debate.  “It is not houseless-ness, its homelessness,” she stated while pointing out that a home is not just the physical structure, it is a place of self-identity.  Homes also provide a sense of emotional and physical safety, which are key concerns for women and families living in unstable housing situations.  For many women, housing insecurity is coupled with domestic violence.  The realities of personal crisis, such as violence, often forces women to choose between abusive situations and the dangers of living on the street or in shelters.  If women and families choose to seek help, it is important that agencies focus on a trauma informed model of care by integrating the lived experience of each individual into a holistic approach. 

CSocD Presents Best Practice Examples in Addressing Homelessness

At the same event, Sophia Housing, founded by Jean Quinn of UNANIMA International, shared how their practices are informed by survivors of homelessness while also working within the paradigm of holistic housing in Ireland.  Tony O’ Riordan, the CEO of Sophia Housing, shared their ‘housing first’ model, which provides those rendered homeless with a home of their own as quickly as possible.  While the government and many other NGOs do the necessary work of providing shelters and emergency responses to homelessness, Sophia Housing has focused their resources on long-term solutions.  In their work, they also encountered the need for ongoing support after people moved into their own home.  To meet that need, O’Riordan explained that Sophia began providing community oriented support, rather than clinical support, delivered with “warmth and comprehensive understanding and empathy for what people have experienced.”  Asking survivors what they need is the only way to understand and value the complexity of their dynamic and evolving situation, and yet so many social systems are static and rigid.  Unyielding social systems cannot fully address the issues of homelessness and often add new trauma to the lives of people experiencing this crisis.

Domestic Violence and its Connection to Homelessness

The failure of multiple social systems of protection is indicative of the intersectionality inherent in the complex experience of survivors.  Dr. Nkiru Nnawulezi, speaking on the panel ‘Women’s Rights to Affordable Housing’, explained the intersecting layers of trauma as experienced by women.  Dr. Nnawulezi shared the example of a woman trapped in an abusive relationship with her husband.  The woman could not legally divorce her husband because his signature was needed for the court to recognize the divorce.  She was unable to break the lease on their apartment, so he was still able to find her by waiting where they had lived together.  Without other affordable housing options near her job, she was unable to move and the police could not evict her husband because his name was still on the lease.  The woman found the police were unwilling to work with her because she was unwilling to move to a shelter, which would statistically raise her risk of being assaulted by others and make it more difficult for her to keep her job.  Failures of court, police, housing, and social systems is a common experience for survivors experiencing multiple issues.  The same is true for people struggling with homelessness who are also discriminated against for their age, sexual orientation, race, gender, or disability.  Mercy Global Action supports Dr. Nnawulezi in calling for agencies and governments to address this reality with housing policies that also dismantle instability created by power systems. Dr. Nnawulezi also reminded us that within our society a “crisis response that only speaks to one need excludes people.”  Working towards inclusive housing policies has a better chance of helping survivors today while also working to reduce homelessness in the future through the support of families and children surviving homelessness.

Every situation of homelessness is unique and intersects with other crises. The increase in extreme weather, the acceleration of climate change, the degradation of the earth -especially in the extractive sector- and displacement of peoples all lead to increased vulnerability, poverty, and homelessness.  For many years, Sisters of Mercy and Associates throughout the world have been working with those who have experienced homelessness. A Mercy response has included direct service including providing shelter, vocational training and education, providing companionship and recognition, and contributing to policy debates on homelessness.

Throughout 2020 and beyond, MGA will continue to listen to and bring the voices and experiences of those rendered homeless, to the global table. In addition to this grassroots experience, we will call on Mercy ministries’ expertise in order to inform and enhance policy at the global, national and local level.

Amanda Carrier rsm, MGA intern

Messages to: Angela Reed rsm - Leader, Mercy Global Action

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