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.
There were also subsidies, as in public housing. Now the policy in the U.S. is [to] remove people from public housing — they say “to integrate them back into the community.” But, in fact, just the opposite is happening. The segregation is increasing.
And you have policies of historical neglect. The indigenous people in Australia have consistently suffered. There’s still not sufficient attention.
Then you have a very strong ideological belief in the market, that essentially says: One of the ways the economy can grow and be robust is if everybody buys a home. But … those that can buy a home are only those who can afford to get a loan or have collateral — and that leaves out many, many people.
Because of this market-oriented policy, you don’t have an investment in social housing, you don’t have an investment in rental properties, and you have speculation. You have the general real estate market increasing, and the poor are left even more out of that market. There are central areas, primary areas of cities — whether you look at Manhattan in the U.S. or [Bombay] in India — where essentially only the rich live, because no one else can afford a place to stay.
So you have this development of “urban apartheid” across the world.
Q: Where is this “urban apartheid” most severe?
A: Well, you see it now all over the world. I’ve seen it in Chicago, in Cleveland; you see it in New York, in Manila, in [Bombay], in New Delhi. I think wherever you look, you have this investment in expensive housing and shopping malls. These areas are essentially off-limits to the poor, as far as finding a place to live.
Q: Has the drop in housing assistance in the United States of $28.1 billion between 1976 and 2002 spurred the increase in the number of homeless people, and are the numbers mostly in U.S. cities?
A: No. You have homeless both in the rural and the urban areas. Recent figures show we’re talking about 840,000 people homeless in the U.S. at any given time, and in the course of the year, 2.5 to 3.5 million are homeless.
Of this number, a very high percentage — 1.35 million — are children. A recent U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that in 60 percent of cities, homelessness has increased and the cities cannot keep up with the shelters. They are also affected because the subsidies they used to get from the federal government are not being maintained. And of the women, the official figure states that in 36 percent of cities surveyed, domestic violence was a primary cause of homelessness for women.
Q: Is this pattern of violence a worldwide problem?
A: Yes. Children and women are the most affected by violence related to not having a secure place to live and escaping violence. And we’re talking not only of domestic violence, but violence from forced evictions [and] ethnic conflict.
Q: Have disparities in landownership exacerbated the homelessness crisis?
A: Yes, lack of landownership is a driving force behind landlessness and homelessness. Of all the private land in the world, three-quarters is estimated to be controlled by just 2.5 percent of landowners. The highest levels of inequality are in countries like Brazil.
Q: Rapid urban growth in countries such as China and India has left a lot of people homeless. Are there any initiatives by governments to protect the vulnerable?
A: No. No, I have not seen anything of significance.
I think what has also happened in developing countries is a competition among cities to attract foreign investment. So you have a situation in [Bombay] where between November 2004 and January 2005, something like 80,000 homes were demolished, affecting about 300,000 to 350,000 people.
I visited the area after the demolitions. The people have not been provided resettlement. They simply have been told to go home to their villages. Some have been there 30 to 40 years, and the excuse being given by the chief minister there is: “We want to make [Bombay] into a world-class city. We want [Bombay] to become like Shanghai.”
But Shanghai developed precisely by dislocating thousands of people — the elderly and poor people — from central neighborhoods. So, there is this race for getting global investment.
Moreover, large development projects from mining to building large dams have also led to dislocation — particularly of minorities and tribal people. This has increased poverty in rural areas, because people are displaced without being resettled, and it has also increased urbanization.
What is shocking is that we’ve come across many communities that have been evicted two, three and four times in a lifetime. They get evicted from their village, come to the city and get evicted two or three times.
Q: Have you found any correlation between large-scale real estate development, speculation, and links to institutionalized corruption and organized crime?
A: I would say that from whatever studies we have taken and testimonies, definitely when you have millions [of dollars] coming into the real estate market and the returns are very high, you will have corruption.
I’ve seen this in the examples that I am giving — in Mumbai, in Nairobi [in Kenya] — you see the very organized land cartels that operate, very often with the collusion of politicians. One of the suspicions about these developments and mass evictions is that there is corruption at a very high level, which makes it then difficult for people in power to adopt any other policy because they need that support.
Q: What are your findings from your missions to Brazil, Kenya and Afghanistan?
A: Well, the situations are different.
Brazil has some very progressive legislation, like [one that] actually compels municipalities to designate what they call “zones of social interest” where the most vulnerable areas are developed first, which is the way it should be.
That said, Brazil is a country that has had a historic process of discrimination regarding the Afro-Brazilian communities of Quilombos, and a very skewed land policy where you have, I think, among the highest inequality between rich and poor in owning land.
So the legacy of that disfranchisement is still very evident. The government needs to speed up land reform. They need to be much more rapid in identifying indigenous lands.
In Kenya, the government has inherited decades of corruption, decades of land grabbing, to an astounding extent.
Kenya is also trying [to overcome this], but I objected to the large-scale evictions taking place in Nairobi, and we have managed to stop that for the time being, and called on the government to have a national evictions act.
And that is, in fact, my recommendation to most governments: to have a law in place that says under what conditions evictions can take place.
Q: What about Afghanistan?
A: When I was there, you had a land scandal where many of the ministers were involved in grabbing land and building houses.
Subsequently to that, President [Hamid] Karzai set up a commission to inquire into this issue. These evictions took place in September 2003, and the commission submitted its report soon after that. Until now, the commission report has not been made public. The situation has not improved. And the people did not get their properties back.
The ones that were evicted were not even resettled.
The Karzai administration is saying essentially, “We are studying the situation, we are trying to regulate the price that is paid for the land, but we have not had a satisfactory response from the government.”
Land grabbing is continuing. There is still a diversion of money from drugs — which is enormous — into real estate to “launder” the money, and we have not seen a very clear property policy.
Q: Are outdated laws and inheritance rules and health problems increasing the problems of homelessness?
A: It’s very clear in the developing world there does not seem to be a single country that has inheritance laws that protect women and which have a substantial equality law that overrides customs and tradition.
Women are becoming disinherited because they cannot obtain rights either in their family of birth nor in their married home. And you have a similar situation also because of the spread of HIV/AIDS — this is very clear in Africa — where many women are routinely evicted from their home when their husband dies of AIDS. You have situations where women who have HIV are discriminated against in access to housing.
For women across the world, there’s this culture of silence: No one wants to talk about their rights to land, property and inheritance.
It’s strongest in the Middle East, North Africa and the Pacific — in countries where you had very strong customs and traditions — not necessarily religion, but the way it has been interpreted to deny women their rights.
Q: Are there any success stories?
A: Yes. In Brazil, for example, there’s an excellent example in Sao Paolo.
Here, the local municipality, along with the state and federal government, have worked with community-based organizations and have actually built housing for the poor.
There are also examples in parts of India to ensure everyone has access to civic services.