Special correspondent John Zarocostas in Geneva last week interviewed Miloon Kothari, an architect and independent consultant on adequate housing with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, about the growing worldwide problem of homelessness. Mr. Kothari, 48, of India, was appointed to the commission in 2000.
Question: You estimate that up to 100 million people are homeless worldwide, of which 20 million to 40 million are adrift in major urban centers. Where is the problem most acute?
Answer: It’s very clear from these figures on homelessness that it’s a growing phenomenon worldwide. The largest numbers are in developing countries, but it’s also a growing phenomenon in developed countries like the United States, where figures are quite high. When you put it together with the fact that developed countries are systematically dismantling their welfare system and withdrawing subsidies, coupled with increasing investment and speculation in the [real estate] market, it’s quite clear the number of homeless people in rich countries will continue to increase.
In the developing world, we are talking of large numbers of homeless in cities of 10 [million] to 15 million in countries like India, Brazil, parts of South Africa, the Philippines. Because in developing countries poverty is worst in the rural areas, the question of landlessness is very closely tied to homelessness and people not having a resource base — not being able to farm.
In my report, I make a distinction between people who are completely homeless, which means they have no roof over their heads at all, and those who are on the margins. For both types of people, you can pick any developing country: Homelessness is there, large numbers are there, in the countries I mentioned.
In the developed countries, the concentration of homelessness is again in the bigger countries — Canada, the United States, Australia — but we’re also beginning to see homelessness emerge in Western European countries. One clear indication is that there are policies in countries like Sweden of deinstitutionalizing people who have mental disabilities. They are being put back into the community, but that is not followed up with community services, so people do not understand the housing-market system and are becoming homeless in very wealthy countries.
It’s also evident in the transition [of] countries in Europe, because there has been a very rapid change. Of the big countries, I should also mention Russia and China. The big, rapid economic change that China has undergone has left many people unable to cope, and you see large dislocations both in the urban and in the rural areas.
In the rural areas in developing countries, homelessness also increases because of large-scale development projects — big dams, etcetera. — and there not being adequate resettlement and rehabilitation policies, people are left on their own.
Q: Are elderly people and women increasingly among the homeless?
A: It’s almost all age groups. When you also look at the extent of street children, in fact, it’s very disturbing to see that in countries like India and Brazil you sometimes see children on the street as young as 6 or 7. And obviously, the impact is greater on children.
Women are affected quite significantly, both in the developing and in the developed world. Women who are fleeing domestic violence, women who are not able to cope, women who are being evicted from homes because their husband died of AIDS. There’s a range of women that are affected, and also we found that 70 percent of women who are homeless are heads of households. So you see the vulnerability women face.
Single parents, single-parent households, women who are escaping violence. We find in most countries the shelters that are there are not directed at the women. For example, in New Delhi today, there’s only one shelter for women.
Q: In the affluent societies of the United States, Canada, Australia — what has triggered the increase?
A: Well, several factors. In particular, the slow withdrawal of social assistance.
The U.S. and others had a policy of having a voucher system where poor families could use the vouchers toward paying the rent. This voucher system is slowly being withdrawn.