Below I am presenting the main info concerning the European Consensus Conference on Homelessness that took place in the National Theatre in Brussels on the 9th and 10th December:
1. BackgroundThe European Consensus Conference in Homelessness was initially called for in 2008. The conclusions of the Round Table on Poverty and Social Exclusion drew attention to the need for a consensus conference on homelessness at EU level in order to facilitate more effective policy co-ordination. This call was supported by the conclusions of the 2008 informal meeting of Housing Ministers. The French Presidency therefore requested that the European Commission organise such a consensus conference. Following this request, the European Commission granted support and finance for a European Consensus Conference on Homelessness in 2010, under the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Homelessness is one of the three priorities of the Belgian Presidency in the social domain. The European Consensus Conference on Homelessness is an official event of the Belgian Presidency, organised in co-operation with the European Commission, FEANTSA (the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless) and with the support of the French government. The conference itself will take place in Brussels on the 9th and 10th of December.2. Homelessness in EuropeExtent of homelessness in Europe: In spite of serious limitations in data and monitoring, it is clear that homelessness is a reality in all EU Member States. This situation has far-reaching negative impacts on the people who experience homelessness, as well as for society as a whole. Whilst there have been significant improvements in recent years in some countries, homelessness is getting worse in others.Nature of homelessness in Europe: Homelessness is complex and multifaceted; affecting individuals and households at different points in their lives, for different lengths of time and in different ways. There are many forms of homelessness. Street homelessness is the most visible and extreme form of poverty and exclusion, but homelessness can also include a range of other situations, such as people staying in emergency, temporary or transitional accommodation, people staying temporarily with family and friends, people threatened with eviction, or people living in inadequate and insecure accommodation.Profiles of people experiencing homelessness in Europe: The stereotypical profile of a homeless person that dominates the popular imagination is a single, middle-aged man sleeping rough. However, there is some evidence that the composition of the homeless population is changing – with increasing numbers of younger homeless people, more women, more victims of family breakdown and more immigrants and asylum seekers.Causes of homelessness in Europe: There are multiple causes of homelessness. It is usually a combination of factors that lead to a situation of homelessness. The causes are often complex andinterrelated. They include:1. Personal factors: relationship breakdown, death of a partner, loss of a job, substance misuse2. Institutional factors: lack of adequate support services, prison release, etc.3. Structural factors: lack of adequate and affordable accommodation, high unemployment rates, domestic violence.Impacts of homelessness in Europe: Homelessness has far-reaching implications, both for individuals who become homeless and at the societal level. Homeless can impact negatively on peoples’ lives in a range of areas, including mental and physical well being. Homelessness has negative consequences for social cohesion and society as a whole. Homelessness can be extremely costly for society.Data on homelessness in Europe: Definitions of homelessness vary widely across Member States. Indeed, almost half Member States lack any official definition. There is also no common framework definition of homelessness at EU level. Due to these problems of definition, as well as limitations of data and analysis, it is impossible to get a clear and accurate picture across the EU of the extent of homelessness. In some Member States, there is extensive collection of data and reporting on homelessness. In a significant number of countries there are data covering only some aspects of homelessness, whereas in others there are no or only very limited and uneven data. Comparable and reliable data and information on homelessness are vital in order to better understand the problem, and to develop effective policies. At European level, some progress has been made in this area – namely through the EU study on Measurement of Homelessness (Edgar et al, 2007)1 and the MPHASIS (Mutual Progress on Homelessness Through Advancing and Strengthening Information Systems)2 project, which aimed to improve the capacity for monitoring information on homelessness and housing exclusion in 20 European countries on the basis of the recommendations of the aforementioned study.Progress in tackling homelessness in Europe: In recent years, a growing number of national, regional and local strategies have been put in place across Europe with the aim of reducing, and even ending, homelessness3. Such strategies have clear objectives with specific targets. Many are making impressive progress; both in terms of preventing homelessness arising and in facilitating exits from homelessness when it does arise – demonstrating that homelessness is a problem that can be tackled.3. European policy contextEU Strategy on Social Protection and Social Inclusion:Through the EU Strategy on Social Protection and Social Inclusion (also referred to as the "Social Open Method of Coordination (OMC)", the European Union coordinates and encourages national actions and policy development to combat poverty and social exclusion on the basis of shared European objectives, a reporting mechanism, agreed indicators and final policy conclusions adopted jointly by the European Commission and the Council of Ministers of the EU. Homelessness has gradually emerged a thematic priority under the EU Strategy on Social Protection and Social Inclusion. When the Lisbon strategy was launched in 2000, homelessness was not a major concern for social policy makers at EU level. It has gradually risen up the agenda through the reporting mechanism of National Action Plans (NAPs). The Joint Report on Social Protection and Social Inclusion is published annually by the European Commission and the Social Protection Committee of the European Council. It is the final policy conclusion resulting from the reporting mechanisms within the EU Strategy on Social Protection and Social Inclusion. The 2005 Joint Report on Social Protection and Social Inclusion included the first mention of homelessness as a priority issue. In the 2007 Joint Report homelessness was listed as one of the few key priorities of the new "active inclusion" objective. By 2009 the Joint Report stated that ‘sustained work is required to tackle homelessness as an extremely serious form of exclusion.’ The Social OMC had homelessness and housing exclusion as a thematic priority in 2009. Member States submitted national reports on the issue. Based on analysis of these reports, the 2010 Joint Report actually calls on Member States to develop integrated strategies to tackle homelessness. It puts forward the following elements for effective strategies:– they have to have clear targets;– they should be integrated; covering all relevant policy fields;– they have to be underpinned by proper governance;– they have to be steered by proper data collection;– they should have a strong housing dimension;– they should take account of the changing profiles of the homeless population, and more in particular the impact of migration.The European Consensus Conference on Homelessness will help to define what needs to be done to ensure proper follow up of the 2010 Joint Report at EU level, and to allow the momentum that has been developed on homelessness at EU level to be transformed into more effective policy co-ordination and support.Europe 2020 Strategy:On 17 June 2010, the European Council adopted the new Europe 2020 strategy which sets out priorities for the next decade. The Council confirmed an EU headline target on promoting social inclusion in particular through the reduction of poverty. The EU poverty target is defined as the following: “promoting social inclusion, in particular through the reduction of poverty, by aiming to lift at least 20 million people out of the risk of poverty and exclusion”. The poverty target is a crucial step in the fight against all forms of poverty, including homelessness. EU Member States will need to translate the target into concrete and achievable national targets on priority social inclusion issues. The Commission’s proposal for EU2020 includes a European Platform against Poverty, which will: “transform the open method of coordination on social exclusion and social protection’ where national authorities will need to ‘define and implement measures addressing the specific circumstances of groups at particular risk such as…the homeless”’ The Platform is an opportunity to strengthen the Social OMC with more systematic monitoring and mutual learning on priority thematic areas such as homelessness. It could pave the way for a clear EU framework to monitor national strategies to tackle homelessness in order to ensure adequate follow-up of the Joint Report 2010. The European Consensus Conference will provide a starting point for the development of such a framework.European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion:The European Consensus Conference on Homelessness is taking place during the 2010 European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion. The key objectives of the year are to raise public awareness and renew the political commitment of the EU and its Member States to combating poverty and social exclusion. Homelessness is a priority policy area within the framework of the year.Calls for more effective policy co-ordination on homelessness at EU level:The European Parliament has taken a number of important initiatives on homelessness, including a Written Declaration on Ending Street Homelessness adopted in 2008. The Declaration calls on the Council to agree on an EU-wide commitment to end street homelessness by 2015; calls on the Commission to provide annual updates on action taken and progress made in EU Member States towards ending homelessness; and urges Member States to devise "winter emergency plans" as part of wider homelessness strategies. The European Consensus Conference on Homelessness could provide a basis for more effective monitoring of policy development and progress in the fight against homelessness at EU-level, as called for by the written declaration. Furthermore, a new cross-party Written declaration on the need for an EU homelessness strategy was launched by five MEPs on 6 September 2010. It has already been signed by more than 200 MEPs. The Consensus Conference could help to make progress on these clear requests from the only directly-elected body of the European Union for more strategic EU-level policy co-ordination in the field of homelessness. At the end of 2009, the EU Network of independent experts on social inclusion produced a report on homelessness and housing exclusion in the EU Member States, providing concrete recommendations on the way forward for homelessness policy development at EU level. The report called for homelessness to be an integrated part of the Social OMC and to be consolidated and continued post- 2010. It highlighted the need to arrive at a formally agreed definition and for the European Commission and Member States to agree a common framework and guidelines for measuring, monitoring and reporting on homelessness and strategies to fight homelessness. The report also called for further transnational exchange and mutual learning, including through greater clustering of stakeholders and activities in relation to homelessness. The consensus conference could help transform these recommendations into effective action within the emerging Europe 2020 framework. In October 2010, the Committee of the Regions published an own initiative opinion on homelessness, stating that the EU must do more to combat homelessness. The Committee believes that a “European strategy against homelessness” is needed, “requiring that the EU institutions be more active in preparing and monitoring measures taken”. Clearly, the outcomes of the consensus conference would be crucial in the development of such a strategy. As the above context shows, the European Consensus Conference comes at an important time for homelessness in the EU and represents a valuable opportunity to establish the role of the EU in facilitating and supporting the development of effective strategies to combat homelessness in the coming years.4. MethodologyConsensus conferencing is a particular methodology. A consensus conference may be described as a public enquiry at the centre of which is a jury charged with the assessment of a socially controversial topic. The jury is presented with evidence by experts in the field, and has the opportunity to ask questions before assessing the evidence in a private reflection and delivering an outcome report. The intention is to move debate on a contentious issue beyond the realm of specific experts and interest groups, in order to facilitate progress in the assessment of the topic for decision-making purposes. According to Jorgenson (1995)4, the consensus conference can be seen to combine elements of the following models:– judicial process with a jury– scientific meeting between peers– town hall-type meeting with public participationConsensus conferences initially emerged in the 1970s as a tool in relation to medical technology in the USA. The methodology has since been adapted and applied in a variety of contexts. During the 1980s, it was extensively adopted by the Danish Board of Technology in the area of technology assessment. In this particular model, the jury is always made up of lay people and the consensus conference is seen as a tool for public participation in science. The consensus conference is a flexible tool; transferable to a broad range of contexts and purposes. Consensus conferencing has only recently been applied to social policy and to homelessness in particular. The European Consensus Conference on Homelessness is the first European-level consensus conference in the social domain. An important precedent was the French national-level consensus conference on homelessness “Sortir de la Rue”, which took place in Paris in 20075. The European Union currently provides a framework for policy development and coordination between the Member States on issues relating to poverty and social exclusion through the Social OMC (the soft law method used to promote cooperation between EU countries on issues which are not exclusive competencies of the EU). Consensus conferencing could be a valuable instrument for the Social OMC, both in the area of homelessness and more broadly. It is consistent with the principals of the OMC in that it is an innovative, action-orientated and participatory tool, which actively incorporates diverse stakeholders and on-the-ground realities and is consistent with the subsidiarity principle. In the context of the EU2020 strategy, and the proposed European Anti Poverty Platform, which will reshape the Social OMC in line with the EU’s post-Lisbon agenda, consensus conferencing could become an important tool for European social policy development; an innovative way of facilitating progress on contentious issues. In the field of homelessness, the European Consensus Conference on Homelessness and its outcomes could provide a basis from which to make the EU framework for transnational support, monitoring and mutual learning in the fight against homelessness more effective. Despite considerable steps forward in recent years, further progress on homelessness at EU level is currently hindered by a lack of consensus on key aspects of the issue. The broad range of perspectives, realities and understandings of homelessness and homeless policies makes policy support and co-ordination at European level a real challenge. There is therefore a need to establish a consensual basis from which to move forward. A thorough preparatory phase is essential for a consensus conference. In this case, a preparatory committee including 20 diverse stakeholders in the field of homelessness – NGOs, researchers, public authorities, people with experience of homelessness and representatives of neighbouring sectors such as social housing – were responsible for the planning phase. The preparatory committee was geographically balanced, integrating representation of diverse Member States within the EU. A broad spectrum of understandings on key issues in homelessness was also present within the preparatory committee. The preparatory committee worked together for approximately 12 months to prepare the conference. Its principal tasks were:– to identify the key questions to be addressed by the consensus conference;– to select the members of jury who would be responsible for establishing the consensus;– to select the experts who would provide evidence to the jury on the key questionsThe European Consensus Conference on Homelessness will address six key questions:1. What does homelessness mean?2. ‘Ending Homelessness’: A realistic goal?3. Are Housing led policy approaches the most effective methods of preventing and tackling homelessness?4. How can meaningful participation of homeless people in the development of homelessness policies be assured?5. To what extent should people be able to access homeless services irrespective of their legal status and citizenship?6. What should be the elements of an EU strategy on homelessness?The preparatory committee selected questions on which a lack of consensus currently impedes policy progress at EU level. The preparatory committee also selected three experts to provide evidence on each key question. The principal criterion for selection was the degree of expertise on the particular key question. However, the preparatory committee also tried to ensure a range of different actors with different types of expertise were present, and that diverging perspectives on the key questions were also integrated. The experts were asked both to submit written evidence, in the form of a short response to the question; and to make a presentation to the jury at the conference itself. At the conference, both the members of the jury and the participants at the conference (approximately 400 people) will have the opportunity to question the experts on their evidence in order to arrive at conclusions. The Preparatory Committee selected seven members of the jury. The jury is composed of experts in the social domain who are independent from the homelessness sector, and have a moral profile at European level. The Chair of the jury is Frank Vandenbroucke, a well-known Belgian economist and politician. He is currently a Member of the Senate in Belgium. He has served as both Minister for Social Affairs and Pensions and Minister for Employment and Pensions in the Belgian Federal Government. He also has considerable experience in the field of European Social Policy, having played a key role in the development of the Social OMC. The Vice-Chair of the jury is the Spanish lawyer and Human Rights activist Álvaro Gil-Robles, who was Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe from 1999 to 2009.The other members of the jury are:– Máté Szabó, Parliamentary Commissioner for Civic Rights, Hungary– Barbara Wolf-Wicha, Professor at the Institute for Social Sciences, University of Salzburg– Matti Mikkola, Professor of Labour Law at the University of Helsinki and longstanding member of European Committee of Social Rights of the Council of Europe– Mary Daly, Professor at the School of Sociology, Social Policy & Social Work, Queen’s University Belfast and member of the EU Network of Independent Experts on Social Inclusion.– Ruth Becker, Head of Women's Studies and Housing in the Urban Planning Department of the Technische Universität DortmundThe jury is responsible for establishing a consensus on the key questions which will be published as a report. The members of the jury will meet behind closed doors just after the conference, on the 11th and 12th of December, in order to arrive at their conclusions. These conclusions will be written up and finalised as a report in the weeks following the conference by a secretariat. The report will provide a basis for future policy development on homelessness at European level. As well as the experts’ evidence, the jury will use two pieces of research commissioned in the framework of the European Consensus Conference on Homelessness to arrive at their conclusions. As the participation of people with experience of homelessness is a central element of the consensus conference, a transnational consultation of homeless people on the key questions has taken place. The Front Commun des SDF (a national platform of homeless and formerly homeless people in Belgium) has co-ordinated this consultation. The aim of the report is to ensure that the views of people with experience of homelessness are presented to the jury and integrated into the conclusions on the keyquestions. Another report has been prepared by an international team of four researchers involved in the European Observatory on Homelessness. The aim of the research, entitled ‘Homelessness and Homeless Policies in Europe: Lessons from Research’ is to provide a strong basis for the jury’s recommendations by summarising the state of existing knowledge on homelessness and homelessness policies in Europe. Overall, the European Consensus Conference on Homelessness represents a potential milestone in the fight against homelessness in Europe. It could provide the elements of a more effective, strategic approach to fighting homeless at EU level. It is an innovative methodology, especially designed for making progress on contentious issues and this is its first application in the social domain at European level.