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With poverty on the rise, do we have more time for talking?

By Danielle Batist

Which continent has one in four people at risk of poverty and exclusion, 26 million people unemployed and homelessness increasing in virtually all states? Hint: it is the same continent that promised three years ago to reduce the number of citizens living below the poverty line by a quarter and lift 20 million people out of poverty. Europe.

They called it ‘Europe 2020: a Strategy to reduce poverty’. If the first three years are anything to go by, it failed. Just before the EU’s Third Annual Convention of the Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion took place in Brussels last month, they got the latest statistics in. They were bad. Things had gotten worse.

I guess I should not have been surprised when President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso opened the convention by admitting that the 2020 strategy was not exactly going to plan: “Unemployment is clearly our most pressing problem. Unemployment, which goes hand in hand with and triggers poverty and social exclusion, is not socially acceptable. […] We cannot say the crisis is over as long as 25% of Europeans are at risk of poverty or social exclusion.”

Setting targets on an EU level when the situation on the ground largely depends on national policy and decision-making is tricky enough, but the real problem comes with the execution. The aim back in 2010 was to create ‘smart, sustainable and inclusive growth’ for Europe. There are indeed careful signs of economic recovery, but it is the ‘inclusive’ part of the growth that has so far failed miserably.

Street papers of course don’t need fancy reports to know Europe is not moving in the right direction. They see the results of broken systems every day, when homeless and marginalised people from all walks of life sign up to become street paper vendors.

One only has to look at FEANTSA’s ‘On the Way Home’ Monitoring Report on Homelessness and Homeless Policies in Europe to see where things go wrong. With the exception of the Netherlands, Finland and Scotland, homelessness has increased pretty much everywhere on the continent. The financial and economic crisis is partly to blame, but policy in many member states is not working to address the issues and too often is making things worse.

Over the course of the conference one politician after another waved the red flag. László Andor, European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion commented: “With 125 million people at risk of poverty or social exclusion, action is urgently needed. Since 2010 when the Europe 2020 Strategy was adopted, poverty has grown significantly worse. There are some signs of economic recovery, but it is far too weak to create the jobs and inclusive growth we need.”

Hours were spent talking about the implementation of the Social Investment Package, which was invented to “give guidance to Member States on more efficient and effective social policies in response to the significant challenges they currently face”.

Ahead of the gathering, FEANTSA, INSP and other European organisations wrote a letter to Andor, highlighting the urgent need for concrete action at EU level to follow up on the Social Investment Package in the area of homelessness. Throughout the event, many charities and civil society organisations working with homeless and vulnerably housed people joined the call for an integrated homelessness strategy.

As is so often the case, the glimpse of hope was provided by those working on the ground, in the field, on the streets. They know what goes wrong and –more importantly- what needs to be done to fix it. From housing-first policies to a rethink of eviction regulation and from early intervention to quality support services: real and practical solutions were offered up from around Europe.

There will be six more conventions before Europe’s 2020 deadline. In Brussels, there will undoubtedly be more reporting, more analysing and more talking. One can only hope that there will also be more listening to those who have invented solutions well ahead of policy change. Those who invented solutions, simply because the person in front of them could not wait until 2020.

Danielle Batist is a freelance journalist covering social justice and the work of changemakers around the world. She is the former Editor of INSP.

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