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At the turn of the twenty-first century, the number of homeless people worldwide was estimated as between 100 million and 1 billion—an estimate whose wide range reflects varying definitions of homelessness. Indeed, the current definitions and categories that are applied in industrialized countries often do not adequately capture the situations of chronically homeless people or squatters in developing countries. Moreover, the causes of homelessness differ in developed and developing countries, requiring different intervention strategies.
Nine developing nations—Peru, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Egypt, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and China—were the subject of a study carried out in 2001 by the Centre for Architectural Research and Development Overseas (CARDO) at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in England. The aims of the study were to explore the different definitions and causes of homelessness in developing countries and to highlight innovative campaigns underway to eradicate homelessness and support homeless people. While CARDO’s research also focused on street children, the emphasis here is on homeless adults and households.
Comparing Homelessness In Developed And Developing Countries
In developed countries, homelessness is generally more attributable to personal or household circumstances than to a failure of the housing supply system. Even when affordable housing exists, homeless people in the West frequently need a range of social support and welfare systems to help them gain access to it, and to the services that might lift them out of homelessness. In developing countries, however, formal housing supply systems simply fail to provide enough shelter to fill the demand, particularly among low-income groups. This leads to massive informal development and squatting which, in turn, places hundreds of millions of people in living conditions that would merit the term homelessness in developed nations.
Indeed, most of the world’s population would be homeless if judged by the standards of the developed nations. For example, in its 1999 study of the issue in Europe, the European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA) defined four levels of homelessness based on housing adequacy. It described an adequate home as one that is secure and where available space and amenities provide a good environment for the satisfaction of physical, social, psychological, and cultural needs. Low quality, by these European standards, is manifested by overcrowding, high levels of noise, and pollution or infestation—conditions that many, if not most, people in developing countries endure.
Cooper (1995) also offers four categories, or degrees, of homelessness. At one end of this scale are those who are housed but without security, safety, and adequate standards for health or child development; at the other end are people without a roof, living on the streets. In Cooper’s model, the category of people without an acceptable roof over their heads could describe the countless millions in poor-quality squatter settlements around the world, as well as street dwellers.
Defining Homelessness In Developing Countries
Official definitions of homelessness range from nonexistent, as in Peru, China, and Ghana, to so broad as to be virtually all-encompassing, as in Zimbabwe.
However, for census purposes, most nations have working definitions that fall into four broad categories.
Some governments define homelessness primarily in terms of home ownership or secure land tenure. Two examples show the extremes of such definitions based on security of tenure. The National Housing Taskforce of Zimbabwe assumes that anyone who does not own a home in an officially approved residential area is homeless. Any adult not possessing a publicly provided dwelling is entitled to register for one on the Official Housing Waiting List. So embedded is this linkage of homelessness with the concept of ownership that government housing policy earmarks 90 percent of all new housing for ownership, and only 10 percent for rental. Furthermore, all urban local authorities are required to sell their housing stock to tenants, as a way of passing the maintenance burden on to the occupants.
Peru is at the opposite end of the tenure scale. Policymakers distinguish two very different— though only semi-official—categories of homeless people. The first consists of those who live in squatter settlements without legal title to land. One Peruvian program grants formal land title to squatters below the poverty level who do not own a registered plot or property. Existing squatter settlements are divided up, and plots are allocated to the residents for formal ownership. As a result, many thousands of people are squatting on poor-quality desert land, in makeshift dwellings of straw or plastic sheeting, and applying for legal tenure before they invest in building more substantial homes. In many cases, the process takes years.
The second group in Peru consists of those living on the street. These people are often branded variously as alcoholics, addicts, vagrants, criminals, and mentally ill. Being so far outside any formal community, people in this group are not granted land title.
For land allocation purposes, India’s census agency defines homeless people as those not living in a “census house,” that is, a structure with a roof. Planners charged with providing house sites to deserving cases classify a person as eligible if they do not have a structure with a roof or land. Thus, residents of squatter areas are entitled to a plot in a regularized area if authorities have driven them from their squatter homes. No household that holds a plot in a regularized area is regarded as homeless, even if its home consists only of a shack. By a quirk of policy, pavement dwellers are usually not counted among the homeless because they are rarely on the list of voters and do not possess ration cards, with which to claim food and fuel at controlled priced. In shelter-based definitions, what constitutes an adequate roof is open to question. The Ghanaian Statistical Service includes sales kiosks, abandoned warehouses, offices, and shops in its definition of “house”; no other issues of quality or suitability are considered. Therefore, in Ghana, only the most destitute, without any form of roof, and without any family nearby to take responsibility for them, are officially defined as homeless.
Definitions Based on Suitability and Quality
Other countries—for example, Egypt and Bangladesh—class such shelter solutions as inadequate. In Egypt, people are considered homeless who live in marginal housing (iskan gawazi in Arabic), including shacks, kiosks, staircases, rooftops, public institutional buildings, and cemeteries. Similarly, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics’ official definition of homelessness is used for census purposes:
Floating population are the mobile and vagrant category of rootless people who have no permanent dwelling units whatever . . . and they are found on the census night . . . in the rail station, launch ghat [terminal], bus station, hat-bazaar [market], mazar [shrine], staircase of public/government buildings, open space, etc.
In South Africa, officials of the Provincial Housing Department and the Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council base their definition on quality. They accept as homeless those people without adequate shelter or secure tenure, including those living in squatter settlements, rooms built in the back yards of dwellings in official townships, or in slum conditions.
Definitions Based on Permanence and Stability
The Indonesian census of 2000 divided the population into two main categories, those with a permanent place to stay and those without. The latter included ship crewmen, nomadic people, and those living in houseboats or floating houses, as well as the more obvious turawisma—houseless.
Differentiating Between Homelessness And Squatting
Squatters need not be excluded from a definition of homelessness, but a distinction is helpful. Without it, the sheer numbers of squatters might divert attention from those in more desperate circumstances. The more chronically homeless, such as street dwellers, generally have no protection from the elements; at most, they might improvise shelters of plastic sheeting, cloth, or cardboard, sometimes clustering together on the pavement or empty private or public space close by. Squatters tend to build somewhat more permanent, roofed structures. This gives them not only more physical security but also a de facto address that helps them develop a social network with people living in similar circumstances. Both of these factors facilitate help from both governmental and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—for example, providing water, sanitation, and opportunities for education and financial credit, especially where these rely on traceable networks to provide valuable social contacts in the absence of monetary assets.
Generally, but not always, squatters’ shelters are of higher quality than street homeless people’s, and tend to be improved over time. Squatters tend to settle in peripheral sites, while homeless people gravitate to city centers where their opportunistic lifestyle is possible.
In many countries, including India, China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, the legal position of squatters is no better than that of their counterparts on the street. All of them— but especially the street homeless—suffer raids during which officials scatter or relocate the people.
However, when this happens, squatters may be the more insecure as they have more to lose. When street homeless people are raided, it is generally because they are perceived as a nuisance or a blot on the attractiveness of the city. But squatter settlements are usually raided to clear land for more profitable uses, often favoring upper-income groups.
In Peru, however, squatters have much higher legal standing than other homeless people. A peculiarity in Peruvian law provides that people who occupy state-owned land and remain there for twenty-four hours, with no formal complaint being lodged, cannot be evicted immediately. Rather, they can apply for legal title to the land, and the case will be decided in court. The same provision applies to occupiers of private land. If such land has been undeveloped for ten years or more, the court is likely to give title to the invaders. Unlike street homeless people, squatters in Peru may consider themselves on an upwardly mobile housing trajectory.
In many countries, the street homeless population has higher occupational mobility, less secure jobs, and smaller income range than residents of squatter settlements. Street homeless populations tend to be predominantly single and male, whereas squatter settlements have more mixed populations.
Interestingly, Ghana has virtually no squatters, as local chiefs control most land. Even the lowest-quality urban housing properties tend to be held legally under a traditional tenure system administered by the chiefs.
A fundamental cause of homelessness in developing countries is poverty, especially in rural areas. However, poverty alone does not necessarily lead to homelessness. There is also a failure of the housing supply system to provide at even the most basic level.
These two problems are exacerbated, in some cases, by social and political changes and the breakdown of traditional family support systems, factors that can gradually push some people into homelessness.
From Rural Home to Urban Homelessness
In many of the developing countries studied, particularly Peru, India, Bangladesh, and Egypt, rural poverty has driven many to seek employment in cities. Most often, a single man moves to the city to work and sends money back to the family, often preferring homelessness to paying for accommodations. In bad weather, he might pay to stay in a hostel, if such places are available, but primarily he “sleeps rough.”
In some cases, other family members follow him to the city. In India, for example, entire families move to the city to work on construction sites and live on or near the site in rudimentary shelters.
Seasonal economic migration in Peru sees many indigenous people from the Alto Plano sleeping on the street and in parks at particular times of the year. A similar pattern occurs in Bolivia. These people have adequate homes back in their villages but are without any shelter for the time they spend trading in the cities.
Many people endure poverty without being tipped into homelessness—until the poverty is coupled with a breakdown in traditional family support or loss of a spouse through separation, divorce, or death. Rapid changes and disruptions in social relations can compound the stress of housing insecurity, while supportive family life and effective parenting can alleviate it. Homeless women and children are frequently casualties of family dissolution or escapees from family violence. This is especially true in a number of South American nations, such as Peru and Bolivia. Street children often also tell of fleeing an abusive stepparent. Indeed, social interventions such as family support and mediation, child protection, and the prevention of domestic violence can be effective in addressing homelessness.
Many developing countries have adopted legislation to protect women’s rights. Nevertheless, cultural attitudes often result in a woman, and her children, being thrown out of their home by relatives if her husband dies or abandons them. Such women may be forced onto the streets (see “Rita: A Case Study,” p. 276, this volume) and sometimes into prostitution to provide for their children. In China, those who might elsewhere be deemed
homeless are included within the “floating population.” This “floating” segment also includes some people who are trying to escape local enforcement of the Chinese government’s “one family, one child” population policy. Some families who want more children choose to leave their household registration place. But women in these “over-procreated” families cannot obtain the official temporary living permit without the family planning certificate granted by their native neighborhood. Without official identification, children born to these couples will have difficulty obtaining education and employment. Evictions In developing countries, governments quite commonly use their powers to evict people to allow commercial development of the spaces they illegally occupied. Those affected have neither the money nor the power to defend themselves. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA), for example, has a land protection branch to detect and remove all squatter settlements. The inhabitants are first rendered homeless and are moved on to the pavement, then are chased off one pavement only to settle on another or on open ground, even at the coldest and wettest times of the year.
Such evictions generally involve the transfer of land from the poor and vulnerable to middle- or upper-income people, and the development of projects that particularly benefit wealthier groups. Such cases can be found in the developed as well as developing countries. In a Malaysian case, the evictions made room for a golf course to promote international tourism. Forced evictions are particularly disturbing for those in precarious housing. Often violent and discriminatory, they are officially sanctioned acts with many harmful consequences for those displaced.
Characteristics Of Homeless People
The characteristics of homeless people in developing countries are quite different from those in the developed countries and from common Western perception of homeless people as lone, unemployed vagrants and drunks.
While the majority of homeless people in developing countries are single and male, there is also a very high percentage of homeless families with children. This is especially true of countries such as Peru if squatters are included in the definition. In India and Bangladesh, households with children also feature highly among those who live on the streets.
Homeless people in developing countries fall predominantly into the twenty to fifty-nine age range. However, there are certain anomalies. For example, in Kumasi, Ghana, 70 percent are under twenty years of age. The figure also varies among some Indian cities. In Delhi, for example, only 14 percent of people living on the streets are under twenty; but in Calcutta the figure is 31 percent. Homeless people in developing countries live and sleep in a broad range of locations: on the street, in abandoned buildings, in stairwells, in and around rail and public transit stations, and in rudimentary shelters in squatter settlements. In India and Bangladesh, many hundreds of thousands of people live on the streets. In some cases, they live without shelter of any kind, carrying their belongings and simply sleeping where they can. In other cases, they construct dwellings of plastic sheeting, cloth, and cardboard—dwellings which have no security or services, but which may survive for years.
In Mumbai, for example, some makeshift shelters extend across the pavements up to the slow lane of the highway, which becomes the front porch for domestic activities. The dangers from passing traffic and pollution are extreme. In other countries, such as China, one rarely finds homeless people living on the street; anyone making the attempt would very quickly be removed by authorities.
In Egypt and Peru, many if not most homeless people live in poor, temporary dwellings in squatter settlements around the urban peripheries. Some of these colonies, particularly those on low-quality state-owned land of no commercial value, have survived for many years and may eventually be allocated to the residents for formal ownership.
While begging is common among homeless people in developing countries, the assumption that all homeless people are reduced to begging, or that all beggars are homeless, is clearly incorrect. Most homeless people in developing countries do work; this is particularly true if squatters are included in the proportion. For example, the Villa el Salvador squatter settlement in Lima, Peru, is home to 370,000 people, most employed in the informal sector as traders, taxi drivers, or laborers, although some are professionals such as teachers or nurses. However, in general, homeless people tend to have lower-paid and more insecure employment than adequately housed people.
Homeless people in developing countries are frequently victims of crime, abuse, and harassment, but there is little evidence to suggest they are any more likely to be criminals than housed people. It has been noted, particularly in South Africa and Bangladesh, that members of criminal gangs, while not homeless themselves, sometimes use the cover and anonymity of squatter settlements to hide stolen goods.
In developing countries, official efforts to address homelessness are limited and indeed often negative or unhelpful. They may take the form of harassment, violence, eviction or displacement of settlers, and imprisonment. One intervention in India, the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, is invoked to clear the streets of homeless people when important public events are to take place. Many other countries report similar “cosmetic” clearing of the streets.
Assisting the Street Homeless
For the street homeless, appropriate interventions might resemble those needed in developed countries. Such people often need a range of advocacy and individual support to gain access to services, as well as needing immediate protection from the elements— preferably free of charge. The lack of such shelter was sadly illustrated by the deaths of several hundred people in Delhi in January 2003, when the temperature made a rare drop below freezing at night. Very few countries provide overnight shelters, although they can be found in India and in South Africa. They are often of poor quality, dirty, unsafe, and lacking in necessities for some users. For example, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi’s night shelters offer no safe parking for rickshaws, so cycle rickshaw drivers must look elsewhere.
But the provision of shelter need not entail building overnight shelters. Many municipal buildings are empty at night and could be used by homeless people as safe places to sleep. The simple measure of legitimizing this use of some public buildings, and providing additional services and support through them, might provide vital help to many thousands of street homeless people.
Nevertheless, some organizations do provide valuable interventions. Delhi’s Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan, a shelter rights campaigning organization, works directly with street homeless people. It provides legal advice as well as one-on-one support for gaining access to a range of services, including medical help. Another Indian NGO, the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), formed an alliance with the National Slum Dwellers Federation and a women’s NGO called Mahila Milan. Together, they supported 60,000 low-income people in voluntarily moving from their settlements beside the railway tracks of Mumbai to make way for improvements to the infrastructure. With the support of these organizations, the people helped plan their new settlement and then moved there—without forced eviction and without the further impoverishment that usually accompanies such moves.
Addressing Mass Homelessness
To address mass homelessness and low-income squatter settlements, intervention approaches in developing countries differ greatly from those in developed countries. At this scale, people need some of the rights that security of tenure bestows. Especially important is the right not to be evicted. They also need more basic housing that can be occupied at virtually no cost, and then improved and enlarged over time. Land allocation policies, which aim to provide homeless people with legal tenure to land on which they can build their own homes, often fall short in several ways. They generally allocate only land of very poor quality, or of low or no value, and leave people on their own to construct habitable residences. The latter is expensive and tends to result in higher-income groups buying out the original allocates for a fraction of the real value of their assets.
The allocated land is usually some distance from the city and thus from employment opportunities. Moreover, land grants without any form of support to help people to build adequate shelter on it has resulted in many thousands of people living for many years in inadequate shelters without services. Although policy reforms in this direction have been advocated since the Year of Shelter for the Homeless in 1987, few governments find such action attractive. As they are usually invisible to national statistics and policymaking, homeless people are not included in lists of development priorities. It is important to pay more attention to the presence of homeless people so that their needs are considered and, where possible, met.
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