Issue 276


[image, unknown] New Internationalist Issue 276

The material that follows has been provided by New Internationalist

Homelessness - The Facts

It takes more than a roof over your head to make a home. Worldwide, more than 1,600 million people live in 'life-threatening' and 'health-threatening' conditions - overcrowded and lacking in basic services. 1 That's almost a third of the world's population.

Under threat

No-one can feel at home when their life is threatened by illness and disease because of where they live.

  • Case studies of cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America show that it is common for at least 30% of the population to live either in illegal settlements with little or no infrastructure or services, or in overcrowded and often deteriorating tenements and cheap boarding-houses. 1

  • [image, unknown] 18 million people in Latin America suffer from Chagas disease and 100 million are at risk. Infection occurs in low-income families in rural areas where poor housing provides breeding sites for the disease vector, the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi.1

  • The incidence of rheumatic fever in developed countries is reported to be below 5 per 100,000 population, whereas in many developing countries, among children living in populations with overcrowded living conditions, it may approach 300 per 100,000. 1

  • 1.3 million homes in Britain are officially unfit for human habitation. 2

The burden of bad homes.3

Bad housing, poor diet and an unhealthy physical environment cause tuberculosis to flourish; poor sanitation and water supplies foster diarrhoeal diseases. This chart shows how many 'life days' 4 are lost on average per person in each region of the world from these two causes alone.


Hundreds of millions of people who lack the basic resources needed to make a decent home are left without one - and their number is growing. The proportion of poor people in the world has fallen slightly, but with a rising world population their total number is increasing fast.

  • During the 1980s average incomes were reported to have fallen by 10% in most of Latin America and 20% in sub-Saharan Africa. In many urban areas wages have fallen by as much as 50%. 1

  • A recent summary of studies on the incidence of poverty in individual developing countries reveals levels regularly in excess of 50% of the population. 6

  • Inequality between rich and poor has grown as fast in the North as in the South: average real wages in the US have not increased at all for the past 10 years.1

  • One in three children in Britain lives below the poverty line.7

Poverty in the Developing World: percentages/numbers.5[image, unknown]


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The combined populations of the US, Canada, Britain and Australasia (the main reader countries of the NI) is about 371 million: the same as the number of the world's poorest rural people who are forced to live where their environment causes insecurity because of soil erosion, the threat of landslip or flooding and other environmental hazards.5


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It is often assumed that millions of people are homeless because they have migrated to the slums of Southern 'megacities'. But such cities still comprise a very small proportion of the total population, both North and South:

  • In 1975 Mexico City was projected by the UN to have a population of 31.6 million by the year 2000: in 1994 the projection was reduced to 16.4 million; for Cairo the projections have been reduced from 16.4 million to 10.7 million.

  • For most of the past 2,000 years the largest cities in the world have always been in Asia and Africa: only briefly during the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth were more than half of the world's 10 biggest cities in Europe and North America.

( right: Megacities North and South: per cent of total population. )1

Third World in the First

Only very rough estimates are made of the number of homeless people in the wealthy countries of the 'North'; but all of them show that the number has been increasing sharply.

  • In the US a very conservative estimate of the number of people sleeping on the streets or in shelters increased from 125,000 in 1980 to 324,000 by 1990. 9

  • Anywhere between 130,000 and 250,000 people sleep rough or in night shelters in Canada. 10

  • In Britain, the number of 'households' (on average comprising more than two people) officially accepted as homeless more than doubled from 62,920 in 1980 to 148,250 by 1992. 11

  • Conditions for poor people in the North are far worse than for the relatively wealthy in the South: infant mortality rates on the Easterhouse housing estate in Glasgow, Scotland (46.7 per 100,000 live births) are more than double those in the São Caetano do Sol region of São Paulo, Brazil (18 per 100,000 live births). 12

  • The real numbers of homeless people are very much higher than official statistics suggest; in Britain something like two million people are 'unofficially' homeless or 'hidden', sleeping on friends' floors or in overcrowded conditions. 11

  • In the early 1990s around 18 million people within the European Union were homeless or extremely badly housed. 3

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Reasons for Homelessness. 11

Detailed analysis reveals that 40% of those officially homeless in Britain became so because parents, relatives or friends were no longer willing or able to accommodate them.


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Political repression, war, hunger and environmental degradation force increasing numbers of people to flee their homes.

At the end of 1994 some 23 million people qualified for international assistance as official refugees. Of these nearly three million were from Afghanistan and just over two million from Rwanda. The number of people 'displaced' within their own countries by destitution, war or environmental degradation doubles this figure. An estimated two million people are homeless in the former Yugoslavia.

1 Our Planet, Our Health, Report of the WHO Commission on Health and Environment, WHO Geneva, 1992.
2 UK Housing Condition Survey, 1991.
3 UNCHS (Habitat), An Urbanizing World: the Global Report of Human Settlements 1996, to be published in May by Oxford University Press.
4 The figures represent the average current and future disease burden per person in disability-adjusted life days lost from new cases of the condition in one year (1990). Thus, they include the disability-adjusted life days lost in later years that arose from disease caught in 1990, but do not include days lost in 1990 from disease caught in previous or subsequent years.
5 The State of the World's Children 1994, UNICEF.
6 Hamid Tabatabai with Manal Fouad, The incidence of poverty in developing countries, an ILO compendium of data, ILO Geneva 1993.
7 Figures from The Joseph Rowntree Trust.
8 Hal Kane, The Hour of Departure: Forces that Create Refugees and Migrants, Worldwatch Paper no 125, June 1995.
9 Christopher Jencks, The Homeless, Harvard University Press, 1994.
10 Maryann McLaughlin, Homelessness in Canada: the Report of the National Inquiry, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, no date.
11 Jill Mann and Alistair Smith, Who Says There's No Housing Problem? Shelter, London, second edition, 1993.
12 Figures supplied by David Satterthwaite, IIED, London.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

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New Internationalist issue 276 magazine cover This article is from the February 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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