Texas Homeless Network

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Homelessness Around the World

Homelessness Around the World

By: William Kao

When concentrating on addressing the issue of homelessness in our local communities, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that other communities, both in the United States and around the world, face challenges that are both similar and different from each other. Each individual case of homelessness is personal and different communities face different social and economic pressures that drive homelessness. Nonetheless, it is still valuable to learn about how homelessness as an issue might vary in different places. Therefore, in today’s blog post, we’ll be taking a whirlwind tour of what homelessness looks like around the world in terms of material conditions, demographics, and socio-economic drivers, with a focus on low- and middle-income countries. 

What does homelessness look like in other places?

an above view of a classic spherical globeHere in Texas, we are used to a certain idea of what homelessness looks like. We see homelessness in our communities and neighborhoods in the form of people panhandling, living in tents, or sleeping on a park bench. When we picture someone who is experiencing homelessness in our minds, we usually envision someone who is “literally homeless,” that is, someone who actually has no access to shelter. While there may be many more individuals who are at imminent risk of losing housing or staying with friends or family because of their inability to afford their own home, people in these circumstances aren’t usually the first people we think of, and this shows in our policies towards addressing homelessness as well.

On the global scale, however, homelessness can look very different. According to the United Nations estimates, the majority of the roughly 1.1 billion homeless people in the world live in low- or middle-income countries. In these communities, homelessness can take on many forms that are mostly unfamiliar to those of us living in a wealthy nation like the United States.  Rapid urbanization in some countries like India and Bangladesh has driven massive sums of people to form large communities living on the streets or in slums with conditions worse than what many people experiencing literal homelessness in Texas face. On the other hand, conflict and political instability contribute to millions of displaced people worldwide, many of whom live in crowded refugee camps with dim long-term prospects of returning home or assimilating into their new host country. 

Besides the experience of homelessness looking different, the demographic composition of people experiencing homelessness varies significantly from place to place. Based on 2023 data from the Texas Homeless Data Sharing Network (with details you can find from our previous blog post here), the homeless population served by Texas CoCs is majority male (60.72%) and mostly adults not in families with children (85% over 18 years old and 90% adult-only households). While most attempts to count the number of people experiencing homelessness in low- and middle-income countries also show a strong skew towards males, cultural circumstances make female homelessness much less visible.

Whether due to cultural unacceptability of being seen publicly or out of fear of potential abuse, trafficking, kidnapping, etc., women are much less likely to be visibly homeless (and therefore counted by researchers). Despite this, women do form a much closer to equal proportion of the homeless population in countries such as Ghana and South Africa, as well as in much of Latin America. Age trends in the homeless population worldwide seem to align with what we see here in Texas, with the majority being older than 18 and a small but growing proportion of elderly individuals experiencing homelessness.

What causes homelessness in other contexts?

In our own communities, we’re all too familiar with the social forces that drive people towards homelessness. Whether it be from losing a job due to a medical or family crisis, rising housing costs leading to shrinking savings when disaster strikes, or a domestic violence survivor fleeing abuse with no place to land – each potential personal reason for becoming homeless is connected to societal trends and forces beyond one’s individual control. Worldwide, many of these same reasons cause significant numbers of people to become homeless, but there are a few major drivers that we don’t see too often here in the United States. 

Economic migration is a major driving factor that is both familiar and unfamiliar to us. As urbanization and economic development continue, many people living in stagnating rural areas are seeking economic opportunities in the city. They leave behind their family homes and often move without a new permanent residence lined up, all with the hope of a better future. Depending on their circumstances, many of these economic migrants end up without adequate housing and no support network in their new place of residence. Government efforts to provide housing to these migrants often fail to hit the mark, as they tend to be overpriced, poorly located, and/or too restrictive in their requirements. In addition, many economic migrants tend to move from job to job while lacking access to many means of transportation, making stable income requirements for financing, locations away from employment locations like city downtowns, and long-term contracts significant barriers even when affordability is not an issue.

As social norms surrounding family support structures change faster than formal support structures such as welfare and publicly-funded housing can be established, many people are being made vulnerable to homelessness due to the collapse of their support networks. These rapidly changing worldwide social circumstances directly impact those who fall into homelessness. For instance, increased social acceptance of separation from wives due to divorce or long-distance work migration in some countries has left many women without a home or the means to afford one. At the same time, increases in women’s workforce participation and the adoption of the nuclear family model of the household have also separated many elderly or disabled family members from their primary caretakers, increasing their risk of homelessness.

Demographic shifts in low- and middle-income countries, which have seen their average life expectancy increase dramatically in recent decades, are also facing issues with caring for and housing their growing elderly populations. Decreasing birth rates in many low- and middle-income countries is reducing the proportion of working-age people capable of supporting the elderly. In addition, rising affluence among the middle class in countries like India has led to people moving farther and farther from their often rural family homes, leaving many older relatives on their own with regard to navigating potential housing crises.

Environmental disasters also contribute greatly to homelessness in low- and middle-income countries. Between major storms and tsunamis in the Indian Ocean and fires in South American slums, millions around the world are left without homes each year due to catastrophes, both natural and man-made. Combined with limited resources available for disaster response and issues with infrastructure, people living in low- and middle-income countries are very vulnerable to becoming homeless due to such environmental disasters and face significant difficulties recovering from them. In some cases, those without permanent, formal housing are ineligible for government assistance during disasters, further exacerbating the plight of people living in inadequate or temporary housing.

What can we learn from around the world?

A protest sign that says "Fight today for a better tomorrow" being held up above a crowd of peopleWhile the circumstances of why people experience homelessness may vary significantly in communities around the world, there are still things we can learn from seeing what factors exist in common. One thing to recognize from what we have learned about global homelessness is that social norms and attitudes matter. In countries and regions with cultures that cast shame on women seen in public, we see women experiencing homelessness disappear from view, making it harder for governments and nonprofits to find and engage with them. In societies that place a greater emphasis on familial support networks, these ties are vital to protecting marginalized members, such as the ill or elderly, from homelessness, as can be seen from the significant increases in homelessness statistics once these norms change.

Another takeaway from what we have seen of homelessness in global communities is that reacting quickly to evolving circumstances is key to keeping people from becoming homeless. Whether it be economic developments, natural disasters, or social shifts, much of the homelessness around the world can be attributed to a failure of public institutions to react, prepare for, or adapt in time to meet people’s needs. With regard to the situation in low- and middle-income countries, one could argue that resource limitations play a significant role in preventing governments and other formal organizations from providing the necessary services and interventions in a timely manner.

Nonetheless, these communities have developed their own strategies and innovative solutions for tackling homelessness. For example, in many Latin American countries, responses to homelessness are primarily driven by community self-help schemes consisting of self-built homes without legal tenure. Though often inadequate, these grassroots attempts to address the lack of affordable housing often perform better than the meager offerings of government-led programs, and some governments have even given them formal recognition and official funding.

Here in Texas, we can and should expect both the local and federal level governments to play a more active role in addressing the issue of homelessness, given the amount of resources they command in comparison to low- and middle-income countries. This is especially true when it comes to planning ahead and reacting swiftly to potential causes and exacerbating factors of homelessness, as was done to some extent during the height of national attention on COVID-19 (which still has significant impacts on homelessness). However, the success of the grassroots efforts mentioned above should serve as a reminder of the latent potential of our communities to help ourselves.

As a community, it is important to remember that we are not alone in fighting the issue of homelessness. Though we do not face the same conditions as other societies around the world, taking a look at the experiences of those who are different from us can always yield valuable insights into the nature of the issues we face and how we could do better to address them. As Texans, we are fortunate to not only have access to a much greater quantity of resources than many living in low- and middle-income countries but also the ability to vote and advocate for systemic changes that make ending homelessness a potential reality. We can do better for our homeless friends and neighbors, so let’s give the world a thing or two to learn from us!

References and Further Reading

Speak, S. (2018). The state of homelessness in developing countries. The State of Homelessness in Developing Countries. https://www.un.org/development/desa/dspd/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/2019/05/SPEAK_Suzanne_Paper.pdf 

Toro, P. A. (2007). Toward an International Understanding of Homelessness. Journal of Social Issues, 63(3), 461–481. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.2007.00519.x

Homelessness Around the World
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