Tackling homelessness and destitution amongst excluded migrants through knowledge exchange: reflections on a meeting of five European cities

Jonathan Price

Five European cities – Dublin, Gijόn, Utrecht, Vienna and the London Borough of Islington – came together this October in Dublin for the first of three meetings for The Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity’s Action for Inclusion in Europe project, funded by the Open Society Initiative for Europe. As part of the project, one of a series of new approaches to knowledge exchange COMPAS is exploring, representatives of the five cities in the fields of homelessness and migration are sharing good practice and ideas through meetings, webinars and information exchange, learning from research evidence and putting together action plans to secure tangible reforms in city practices to achieve better outcomes for marginal and excluded communities.

Migrants constitute a growing sub-population of the homeless in European cities. However, restrictive national legal frameworks often mean that city authorities are unable to rely on tried and tested services to resolve the problems of homeless migrants. Homelessness services have traditionally been designed for people with a minimum level of support provided through mainstream welfare and employment agencies, with specialist interventions provided on top. Different approaches to addressing homelessness have been researched and evaluated, providing evidence on what does and doesn’t work.

In addressing migrant homelessness, however, a more limited set of policy tools are available to cities and approaches to resolve it are relatively under-researched. Indeed, the hands of city officials and service providers are frequently tied by immigration legislation that restricts their practice, in an attempt to minimise welfare expenditure, disincentivise migration and prioritise certain groups over others in the provision of services. The freedom to develop local, tailored solutions varied within the group of five cities, with the UK operating in the most restrictive, inflexible funding and policy environment, and cities elsewhere having comparatively more power and flexibility. It is noteworthy in light of this observation that the available evidence shows giving freedom to service providers to put their professional values and expertise into practice leads to better outcomes for service users (Dwyer et al, 2011; Mostowska, 2014).

The profile of the cities’ homeless migrants was far from the homogenous group frequently depicted in the homelessness literature. Whilst it has been argued that homelessness is a differentiated process comprised of distinct sub-populations with specific routes in and out of homelessness (Busch-Geertsema et al, 2010), migrants are often problematically lumped together. The existence of subgroups within the broader group of homeless migrants emerged through our conversations – including mobile EU citizens, migrant children leaving care, visa overstayers, and refused asylum seekers – where immigration status frequently determines their route in and out of homelessness. Further, they had intersecting needs and circumstances with the broader homeless population such as the temporal nature of their homelessness (entrenched/temporary) and, in some cases, circumstantial (health needs/domestic violence/substance abuse problems). Indeed, the picture painted by cities was very complex, with people’s experiences of homeless specific to the particular configuration of their presenting circumstances, requiring tailored and targeted interventions.

Towards a solution

There was some consensus amongst cities that their primary role as homelessness services was to resolve a homelessness problem over and above a perceived migration problem, seeing their service users as residents rather than as problems to move on. In a context of scarce resources and national policies that deprioritise migrants in the provision of services, this is a challenging task indeed. The housing first model of homelessness service provision – where more permanent housing is provided to entrenched homeless people from the outset – has proven to be highly effective in addressing entrenched homelessness more broadly. Applying the approach to migrants has come up against restrictive funding rules and a perception that their stay is temporary or unwanted. But its efficacy warrants exploration as a solution to this emerging problem and it is in the cities with greater flexibility that a housing first approach to migrant homelessness shall be explored.

Resolving homelessness cannot be isolated from the broader political and financial challenges of cities, hence some of the solutions may be outside of the homelessness field, for example developing an anti-rumour campaign to present impartial evidence on the impact of migrants on welfare services, strategic media work harnessing the city’s progressive voice on welfare and immigration, and joint working with other services such as immigration solicitors, and health, social care and employment agencies.

The comprehensive collection of data on migrant homelessness is a key ingredient for informing evidence-based approaches and is important to evidence interventions that are successful and those that are not, to plan services effectively and to demonstrate need for services. It is also important to frame that evidence to build arguments that are authoritative and palatable to different interest groups, for example, financial and human rights arguments. The cities’ experiences show that a reconsideration of ‘emergency approaches’ is required along with a move towards longer-term solutions, based on evidence of what works, and an understanding that migrants that are going to stay need to be housed along with targeted, tailored interventions to meet their specific needs.


Busch-Geertsema, V, Edgar, W, O’Sullivan, E and Pleace, N (2010) Homelessness and homeless policies in Europe: Lessons from research, Brussels: FEANTSA

Dwyer, P et al (2011) The Home study: The Support priorities of multiply excluded homeless people and their compatibility with support agency agendas, Swindon: ESRC

Mostowska, M (2014) ‘We shouldn’t but we do…’ Framing the strategies for helping homeless EU migrants in Copenhagen and Dublin’, British Journal of Social Work