As the novel coronavirus advanced on Europe in March, authorities in England accomplished in 48 hours what advocates for the homeless had urged for years: The government housed nearly all of the country’s “rough” sleepers or homeless people who had been living on the streets or in shelters.

“These are unusual times, so I’m asking for an unusual effort,” Louise Casey, head of the British government’s response to covid-19 and rough sleeping, wrote in an email to local authorities, the Guardian reported.

In a few days, 15,000 people were set up in empty hotels and private lodgings as streets and shelters were cleared, under a national directive implemented locally. Amid orders to stay home, similar efforts had differing degrees of success across Europe, where homelessness has increased 70 percent over the past decade, despite the continent’s robust welfare systems.

“The coronavirus has showed that if there is enough political will and urgency, you can end homelessness in a couple of weeks,” said Freek Spinnewijn, director of the European Federation of National Organizations Working With the Homeless, or FEANTSA.

Even amid the pain the virus has wrought, it has opened a rare opportunity to reshape homelessness policies, advocates in Europe told The Washington Post. With no end to the pandemic in sight, many experts say the homeless need ongoing help finding long-term accommodations, rather than one-off meals and temporary rooms.

Whether some of the new measures stick remains to be seen.

Housing first

For years, FEANTSA and other organizations in Europe have lobbied for housing first or housing-led models. The idea, initially popularized by activists in New York City in the 1990s, is to focus on permanent housing rather than temporary shelter beds or halfway homes. While advocates continue to push for such policies in the United States and some municipalities have experimented with them, the approach has received widespread resistance.

Many experts in Europe say governments could save money in the long term and get closer to solving the problem by addressing a central cause, a housing market that cannot provide for the most vulnerable, rather than accumulating costs by treating symptoms, like the need for a bed or shower on a given night.

By one estimate, at least 700,000 people are on the streets or in shelters on any given day in the European Union, according to Spinnewijn. In a recent report, FEANTSA estimated that if the E.U. allocated 3 percent of the subsidies in its covid-19 recovery plan, it could “immediately rehouse all homeless people across Europe in dignified conditions for an entire year.”

There is a broad consensus behind housing-first policies among anti-homelessness advocates in Europe. Critics argue that housing should be determined by the choices and responsibilities of individuals — not the state and taxpayers. But when the pandemic hit, the housing-oriented approach proved the easiest way for some governments in emergency mode to get people off exposed streets and out of crowded shelters.

Changes during the coronavirus pandemic

“The idea that you need homes for people instead of shelters finally sort of sunk in,” said Rina Beers, a senior policy adviser for Valente, a Dutch organization focused on homelessness.

In 2009, the Netherlands had about 17,000 homeless people. The estimate is now 40,000, although Beers said the real number is likely higher. Middle-aged men used to dominate the homeless population, but in recent years it’s become younger and begun to include a larger share of families.

The country of about 17 million is short 300,000 housing units, Beers said, which is the crux of the homelessness problem.

Early in the pandemic, the government told local authorities not to worry about the extra cost as they began housing people in empty hotel rooms, shelters set up on parking lots and other accommodations, Beers said. In June, it transferred about $107 million to 43 municipalities to cover spending since March on housing the homeless.

In April, the government commissioned a report to offer advice on housing strategy, which concluded that housing-first policies are the best in the long-term, both economically and socially, Beers said. In May, the government set aside $235 million that local authorities could use through 2021 to fund plans to eradicate homelessness, including housing-led programs, on top of the $454 million already budgeted annually.

Shelters versus homes

Before the pandemic, Finland, with about 5.5 million residents, was the only country in Europe to nearly eliminate homelessness after implementing a housing-first strategy a decade ago.

“Housing is a basic social right,” said Juha Kaakinen of the Y-Foundation, a Finnish homelessness organization that rents accommodations and advises on government policies. “We think that a civilized society takes care of its members, and that’s what we are trying to do in Finland.”

As part of the overhaul, Finland’s government renovated short-term hostels and turned them into long-term independent housing. It currently spends more than $2 billion each year on housing subsidies, Kaakinen said. At the end of March, the country had about 700 people in emergency accommodations.

With Europe’s economy spiraling downward, there is still no easy or low-cost fix. Policies adopted in countries including the Netherlands and Finland, Beers said, might not be as easy to replicate in parts of Europe with less robust social support, such as France and Italy.

After England’s successful rush to house people, “a lot of the old restrictions, specifically immigration-based restrictions, are now being reapplied,” said Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs for Crisis, a London-based charity for homeless people.

An estimated 600 rough sleepers have returned to the streets of London, and hundreds more have done so elsewhere in the country, Downie said. Crisis estimated it would cost England $373 million to roll out the first year of a housing-first program. This includes intensive support, such as professional and psychological counseling and immigration advice.

Authorities spent $4 million on temporary housing at the start of the pandemic, in addition to issuing a moratorium on evictions set to expire Aug. 23. In May, Westminster announced an additional $210 million for a fund to build 6,000 new housing units. At the end of June, it announced another $137 million available for programs to address homelessness. Housing-first-based programs, however, do not receive specific attention in the guidelines for these funds, Downie said.