After the Great Recession of 2008, Latvia saw a large rise in its homeless population. After a 389% increase in homelessness from 2009 to 2017, the nation recorded 6,877 homeless people, three-quarters of whom are concentrated in Riga. Data from 2018 also displays that the majority of subjects living in shelters are pre-retirement, ages 41 to 61. Coupled with its lack of affordable housing and deteriorating household economic situation, Latvia has long struggled to provide organized and well-funded state programs to its homeless population. As the government continues not to act, many citizens struggle against addiction, health problems, a weakening economy and stereotypes that exacerbate homelessness in Latvia.
Why Latvia Has Been Unsuccessful So Far
Latvia’s main weakness within its programs is the lack of national and state support. Measures to address homelessness in Latvia are left entirely to the local authorities, which are often inadequate and only provide low-intensity aid. For example, shelters do not offer essential and progressive services such as transfers to temporary or permanent accommodations, making it difficult for individuals to leave shelter systems. Latvia dismisses this issue to such a great extent that has yet to even recognize a formal definition of homelessness in its legislation. The nation’s poor funding and organization, as well as the exceedingly small size of its housing stock, causes the ineptitude of homeless prevention. Municipalities provide social housing exclusively, though some larger governments have formed specific companies to maintain and manage public stock.
Most shelters in Riga have limited services that only provide basic emergency shelter and minimal support-worker time. Displaced individuals thus struggle to re-establish themselves in society and find sufficient private housing, leaving them stuck in public housing systems. Those with alcoholism or other addictions may use detox and rehab programs that Latvian social services provide, but these interventions are costly at €200 for 28 days with an additional €50 per month for accommodation.
Discrimination Against the Homeless
A pervading culture of discrimination also limits opportunities for displaced citizens. In 2018, Latvijas Sabiedriskie Mediji, the official news portal of Latvian radio and television, reported a case of blatant prejudice towards 43-year-old homeless man Gunārs. Gunārs did not qualify for free healthcare, as he was the victim of an inventive tax evasion scheme that firms targeting the homeless used. However, even after Gunārs offered proper payment and was proved a registered patient, the doctor still denied him treatment by claiming his intoxicated state was in violation of code and removing him from the premises. The news source’s further investigation revealed mistreatment towards alcoholic clients at the Red Cross shelter on Gaizina street, which limited drunk individuals to stay on the first floor where they faced verbal and physical abuse by guards and even preachers.
Persons without tax-paying families are also unable to claim financial assistance, as applications of welfare for homeless citizens can only occur through the head of the household based on additional household costs. Latvian citizens returning from abroad are also subject to police inquiry and assessment to determine whether people have a genuine reason to be homeless.
A recent video campaign that the local transport authority in Riga released encourages this anti-homeless sentiment by urging passengers who encounter homeless individuals on their commute to call the police to arrest them. The advert repeatedly plays on the screens of buses, trams and trains throughout the city that advise citizens to identify homeless individuals through their “odor.”
Initiatives to Reduce Homelessness in Latvia
Fortunately, Latvia has taken steps to improve conditions for its homeless citizens. The Riga Central Library, for example, started an initiative in 2017 by collaborating with a local day center to serve as an easily accessible intermediary for homeless clients seeking social needs. The library also solicits food, toiletries and supplies for the homeless; offers brochures, posters and handouts that describe the services available within the library/community; and offers assistance in public service application forms, as well as time to discuss with lawyers, social workers and career consultants.
According to the 2019 ESPN Thematic Report on National Strategies to Fight Homelessness and Housing Exclusion, the government aims to develop a uniform housing policy that improves insufficient social housing, develops affordable quality housing support mechanisms, expands the range of services offered to homeless individuals and prevents homelessness through increased material support. Additionally, the plan strives to ensure that national and local governments designate fiscal funds to make this goal a reality. Statistics from 2019 showed a 3% decrease in Riga’s homeless population in comparison to the previous year, which could indicate that these projects had some positive impact.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has also hastened the Latvian government to take more direct action. To prevent further evictions, the Riga municipality has guaranteed both minimum income benefits and housing benefits for its population. Citizens can also request food from the city’s six food dispensers. In addition to increasing funding for social services provided to homeless and vulnerable persons by €93,320, the Riga Municipality has demonstrated initiative in enforcing hygiene to stop the spread of COVID-19 in shelters by increasing funding to the Blue Cross Men’s Shelter of the Evangelical Christian Church by €4,211 to install five toilets and two disinfection tables.
These new policies could indicate a shift toward greater direct government funding and organization to help homeless persons. By aiming to reduce both shelter occupation numbers and rates of poverty in the next decade, the elimination of homelessness in Latvia is possible.
– Christine Chang