Any European cities I have ever visited had homeless or beggars on the street. Or these people may not necessarily be homeless but it is clear enough that they are extremely poor and need help from the social security.

However, these European countries generally implement the good welfare system due to higher taxation, compared to other developed countries/districts including USA, Canada, Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong. The countries include even the first-world countries like Italy, Germany, France, and my Swedish friend said it is also common in Stockholm.

So why is the homeless and beggars so common in Europe (Western and Scandinavia), despite its high-tax, large-welfare system, and why do these people not seem to have access to it? Is it only in prominent urban cities or also common in suburban and rural?


EDIT

Some people asked me some data source. According to the following data, homeless rate is much lower in Japan and South Korea (.004% and .022%), compared to Austria (.21%), France (.21%), Germany (.14%), Denmark (.11%), Sweden (.36%), UK (.46%), which is still higher than Canada (.09%) and mostly than USA (.17%).

Another source is from this Japanese website, on which a Japanese NGO interviewed EU commissioners. The EU commissioners said there are about 900,000 homeless across the entire EU (0.17% based on 508M population) and from the way it is written, it only includes homeless and not beggars.

While homeless rate in USA and Canada are on par with that in European countries, they don't implement the high-tax, large-welfare system. So if there are differences, these countries should rather have higher homeless rate. That is the point of my question.

And in "European countries/cities", I meant that in Western Europe and Scandinavia, which are economically more developed and have greater social security.

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    "so many" compared to where? Also: "European cities" is really a quite meaningless category for this kind of question. – Martin Ba Sep 12 at 17:19
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    @MartinBa As I wrote in the comments to some answers, compared to Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong. Singapore also has fewer. I meant Western Europe and Scandinavia in the body of the question but if the title is misleading, feel free to edit it. – Blaszard Sep 12 at 17:28
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    Lots of comments deleted. Please note that comments should be about improving the question. They should not be used to discuss the subject matter of the question or to answer it. – Philipp Sep 13 at 13:44
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    It's impossible for people to answer this question without, at a minimum, knowing the exact cities you experienced this in. The risk of sampling bias is enormous, because we don't know the exact countries, we don't know the size of the cities, the economic circumstances of the city (and how they may not be representative of the country), a lot of people (possibly you?) make population density fallacies, and your individual experiences may have been flukes. I am American, and I've seen homeless in every city I've lived in. There are also 18 Euro countries with lower homelessness than the US. – John Sep 13 at 20:08
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    The data on Wikipedia regarding homeless rates of different countries might not be very reliable. It is very difficult to accurately count homeless people, because they usually do not register anywhere. The numbers for different countries come from different sources which use vastly different methodologies. So you should be careful when you compare them. – Philipp Sep 16 at 10:59

19 Answers 19

I also wondered why there are homeless people in my home-country Germany even though the social safety system is legally obligated to pay the rent for people who can not afford to do so. In this case, the rent is paid directly by the municipal government to the landlord, so there is no way to misappropriate those funds. So I did some research regarding the reasons for homelessness in Germany.

Most sources are obviously in German, so please excuse that I am not able to provide any good English sources. This answer is based on an articles by Nothilfe Mensch e. V., (a charity organization which helps homeless people), an article by the Diakonie (a church-based charity organization) and an article by Brand Eins (an economic magazine).

These sources point out that there are many ways to become homeless, but there is one path to homelessness which seems quite typical:

  1. A person gets into a troubling situation in their life. Addictions, job loss, death or destroyed relationships with loved ones, etc. Due to lack of help from their social surrounding, they are unable to cope with their situation. They develop mental health problems which then cause even more of the above problems and eventually the accumulation of debt.
  2. They don't pay their rent anymore, so the landlord tries to get them evicted.
  3. The eviction is successful and the person gets thrown out of their apartment. They neither have any people who can take them in temporarily, nor the money to pay for a hotel. So they have to sleep on the street.
  4. Due to the severe lack of housing in urban areas, landlords can choose their tenants freely. The homeless people are competing with others who seem much more financially and psychologically stable. So they have no chance to find a new apartment.

Part of the eviction process is that the landlord needs to notify the social security bureau, who then send a letter to the tenant and inform them about what help they are entitled to. A "normal" person would then make an appointment with the bureau and file a request to have them pay the rent. But some people apparently don't do this. Why?

Remember that we are talking about people with severe mental health problems here who are completely overwhelmed by their life situation. In order to obtain help from the social security bureau, they need to open that letter and reply to it. A letter which is usually found among unpayable invoices, legal threats and other problems they really can not deal with right now. In order to receive the help from the state they are legally entitled to, they actually need to become active and request it. This can be a difficult barrier for some people.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Sam I am Sep 17 at 1:19
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    @Philipp notice than only a few regions in Germany have the right to housing enshrined in their constitution. I would say that there is probably a good correlation between constitutional (legal) housing rights and low homelessness. Check for example the data from the Housing Rights Watch (their interactive map is quite useful). Also this is expected to change in the future. Germany has ratified the European Social Charter which recognizes housing as a right. – armatita Sep 17 at 15:10
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    @Philipp with no intention in judging (I generally do appreciate your answers) I do feel that associating mental health to homelessness (even if indirectly) might be somewhat unfair and possibly even contribute to a stereotype. Mental health is a very large theme which deals with subjects from pathological conditions to drug consumption. There are certain contexts that in some regions lead to social ostracism towards more vulnerable elements of our societies. And this includes racial bias, gender bias, gender identification bias, etc. I do feel this topic is more complex than this. – armatita Sep 17 at 15:20
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    About the last two paragraphs, asking someone with severe ADHD or Depression who is off their meds (or never had any to start with) to go through an involved burecratic process, make an appointment, and keep it is akin to asking them to walk on the moon. If they were capable of reliably doing that stuff on their own, they most likely wouldn't have gotten in that situation in the first place. – T.E.D. Sep 17 at 15:38

The (homeless) beggars are likely to congregate where they are most visible and likely to be successful at begging. Their visibility to tourists probably depends more on how willing the police is willing to crack down on them.

And your impressions of prevalence don't seem backed by data, at least before the financial crisis of 2008.

From "Homelessness in Europe and the United States: A Comparison of Prevalence and Public Opinion (2007)":

Random samples of 250–435 adults were interviewed by telephone in five different nations (N = 1,546): Belgium, Germany, Italy, the UK, and the United States. The interview included questions on respondent attitudes, knowledge, and opinions regarding homelessness; respondents’ own personal experiences with homelessness and homeless people; and demographic characteristics of the respondents. The highest rates for lifetime literal homelessness were found in the UK (7.7%) and United States (6.2%), with the lowest rate in Germany (2.4%), and intermediate rates in Italy (4.0%) and Belgium (3.4%). Less compassionate attitudes toward the homeless were also found on many dimensions in the United States and the UK. Possible explanations of these findings, drawn from various theoretical perspectives, and policy implications are provided.

"Testing a Typology of Homelessness Across Welfare Regimes: Shelter Use in Denmark and the USA" (2015)

This article compares patterns of homeless shelter use in Denmark and the USA. Combining data from homeless shelters in Denmark with population registers, we find that the prevalence of shelter use is substantially lower in Denmark than in the USA. A cluster analysis of shelter stays identifies three types of users similar to findings from US research: the transitionally, episodically and chronically homeless. However, the transitionally homeless in Denmark have a higher tendency of suffering from mental illness and substance abuse than the transitionally homeless in the USA. The results support Stephens and Fitzpatrick' hypothesis that countries with more extensive welfare systems and lower levels of poverty have lower levels of homelessness, mainly amongst those with complex support needs, whereas in countries with less extensive welfare systems homelessness affects broader groups and is more widely associated with poverty and housing affordability problems.

It might have gotten worse in Greece.


I couldn't find stats on how many beggars are locals and how many intra-EU/EEA "migrants", but clearly the large difference in economic development between the Eastern EU (Romania, Bulgaria etc.) seem to play a role in the beggars you see in Paris or in Oslo.

At least according to one (2011) Swiss news article:

There is no national legislation on begging in Switzerland. It is left to the cantons and communes to deal with the problem.

The recent call for a ban in Lausanne follows similar moves in other parts of French-speaking Switzerland, such as Geneva, Vevey, Montreux, Renens and ten communes west of Lausanne, as well as cantons Fribourg and Neuchâtel. Other locations, such as Aigle, Yverdon and Pully, are also considering bans.

Geneva introduced a ban in February 2008 but groups of Roma beggars are still visible on its streets, despite several police round-ups and regular controls. It is estimated that the number of 200 previously present in front of stores and banks may have been cut by half.

Older begging bans are also in place in Basel, Zurich and Lucerne.

“Numbers clearly increased following the introduction of Schengen [25-country passport-free travel zone], but it’s still a small problem compared with Zurich and Bern,” said Klaus Mannhart, spokesman for the Basel City police.

Bern, meanwhile, has no ban against begging. But in June 2009 the police, along with Romanian and Bern city authorities launched a programme named “Agora” to crack down on organised gangs from eastern Europe targeting the city.

After almost 700 police checks - including 79 on children – totalling 2,000 working hours, Agora is considered a great success, said Bern aliens police chief Alexander Ott.

“We hardly have any more beggars; they say Bern and Switzerland – no more.”

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    @Blaszard, one has to take care of the definitions with that. A 20-something who has to return to the parent's home for lack of other shelter would be homeless in some statistics -- without a home, and not by choice. – o.m. Sep 12 at 15:28
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    What is always hidden is that the major cause of lifetime homelessness is mental illness or special needs. It is not (for a majority of this population) unfair wages or unfair welfare. Those who are homeless will have trouble registering or even caring that they should register – Frank Cedeno Sep 12 at 15:28
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    In Berlin, most homeless people that are highly visible are from the Balkan or eastern Europe. Also, Asia is much different due to strong ideas of family honour etc., i.e. cultural differences. – Philip Klöcking Sep 12 at 16:59
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    @Blaszard In my experience, homeless people in developed Asian countries tend to be ejected from the society and form sub-urbs somewhere outside of the cities. They don't beg because they'd be prosecuted, and it would be too much of a shame. In Europe, begging isn't seen as a crime that much - and not as frowned upon. – Narusan Sep 12 at 17:20
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    Related paper says 25,296 homeless in Japan in 2003 (population 127.7M => ~0.02%). Paper suggests income homogeneity (via GINI coefficient) and then says "After the income distribution leveled out (Tachibanaki, 1998), public begging disappeared." though I'm not sure about the correlation. Paper also points out begging is illegal, and that homeless tend to form isolated communities. More in A Comparative Study of Homelessness in the United Kingdom and Japan – BurnsBA Sep 12 at 18:38

These answers are specifically for Sweden, which you mention in your question, but at least some of it may also apply in other countries:

  • You need to be a Swedish citizen or have a residence permit to have access to most parts of the Swedish welfare system. Most people begging on the streets in Sweden are from EU countries in southeastern Europe. EU citizens have the right to live in any part of the EU as long as they can support themselves. But they only have access to the welfare system in their home country. Before Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007, begging on the streets was a quite uncommon sight in Sweden.
  • If you are a Swedish citizen or have a residence permit, the government can help you get an apartment if you are homeless, and pay for your rent if you have no means to pay for it yourself. But you still need to be able to keep the apartment, which requires you to keep the apartment in an acceptable condition and to behave acceptably towards your surrounding. Many homeless people who would have access to the welfare system suffer from addiction, mental illness, or a combination of both, which can make this difficult. The government can offer you support in dealing with those issues, but they cannot force you to stay sober or seek treatment.
  • There are many homeless shelters, run by both local governments and charities, that offer homeless people a meal, a shower and a bed for the night, but you generally need to be sober and behave acceptably while you are there. This may seem like an easy thing for you and me, but if your life is a wreck and you are struggling with addiction and/or mental illness it may not be so easy.

I'm not saying that I think these people deserve the situation they are in or that they only have themselves to blame. I'm merely pointing out that even the Swedish safety net has holes in it that you can fall through.

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    Your first point is likely the important factor. I remember that before Bulgaria and Romania joined, I could count the people in the streets on one hand. – pipe Sep 13 at 5:47
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    Spot on for Norway as well. We are not part of the EU, but have signed agreements with them about open borders. – Stig Hemmer Sep 13 at 7:35
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    @pipe Yes, the first point is the probably the dominant factor for people begging on the streets. But maybe not for homelessness. – jkej Sep 13 at 8:06
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    On more factor specific to sweden, which you might consider including in your answer: Psychiatric care was reformed in the mid nineties resulting in more people with mental issues living on their own (instead of institutions). Some of them fail to handle that, ending up evicted. – Guran Sep 13 at 8:52
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    As to psychiatric care reform in Sweden: Before the reform persons could, and was, taken into psychiatric hospitals against their expressed will. The history includes people that were locked up for life, sedated with strong medicines and, historically, sterilized. This was declared against human rights -- a person should not in general be forced to accept treatment (unless dangerous to other persons). A person in Sweden is allowed to be homeless (beeing homeless up to around mid 1900-s used to be punishable with prison). – ghellquist Sep 13 at 12:38

Homeless vs. Beggars

Homeless people aren't very visible. Police chase them away from the places where tourists might see them. They end up somewhere hidden.

Beggars on the other hand, are very visible. Their very job puts them in places tourists and other rich people go. Police might try to chase them away, but they come back. And the police doesn't want tourists seeing anything that might look like police brutality, so they end up letting them stay.

This means that in countries where begging is legal, it is a very visible problem. In countries where it is not legal, the police can do more to hide the problem.

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    Very important distinction made well – Stilez Sep 15 at 6:18
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    And it should be noted that beggars can make substantial amounts of money; they're not necessarily poor. Some people make a business out of looking poor and exploiting the charity of strangers, though it's relatively rare. – Luaan Sep 17 at 10:55
  • There are countries where begging is not legal? Should people just die then? – paul23 Sep 20 at 11:58

Typical welfare is modeled to be a stop-gap type of thing. So, if you lose your job and can't get another for six months, then the govt comes along and won't let you starve. It is usually modeled on the idea that the people involved are generally reasonable, and desire to do something for themselves. The usual thing is a quite gentle intervention.

The causes of homelessness are varied. It is very difficult to be sure you understand how and why any given person is such, especially just by looking at them. Just a few examples: Mental health issues, drug/alcohol abuse, various issues of abuse and conflict in the home, for example teens being forced out or abandoning home.

These issues can be both causes, and they can contribute to staying homeless when somebody is homeless for some other reason. The homeless guy may use alcohol to simply get through a night, which will lower him more and make getting back in a home harder.

This website says Schizophrenia may be as high as 20% of homeless.

https://endhomelessness.org/new-study-offers-hope-for-homeless-people-with-schizophrenia/

This website claims alcohol is 38%, and other drugs are 26%.

https://www.michaelshouse.com/drug-abuse/study-homelessness-addiction/

There are many other issues. Such things are often quite resistant to what would you would call gentle intervention. For example, a hard core drug abuser is not going to be kept off the street by handing him rent and food money. He'll just spend it on drugs, and be back on the street. If you find a teen who has run away from abusive parents, giving him money won't solve the abusive parent situation. Though it may get him into a crappy apartment.

It may be possible to intervene in such cases. But it will require vastly more than just handing them money. In some cases, even the full attention of a professional psychologist may be insufficient. Addiction, for example, can be very resistant to change.

So, for some group of people, it will be the case that you can't get them off the street unless you are prepared to physically grab them and stick them in some kind of therapy. And you will need to physically keep them there until it makes some difference. Most western nations find such forcible institutionalization distasteful. So those folks tend to wind up on the street.

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    Compared to physically confining an addict in a therapy center, yes, certainly. – user21424 Sep 14 at 19:46
  • Ok, I thought you meant that it was supposed to be temporary, short-term help, and that people tend to run out of it. I see what you mean – divibisan Sep 14 at 19:48

One issue is that homelessness is not caused by poverty. It is more accurate to say that homelessness causes poverty. Homelessness is primarily a mental health problem. People can't handle the pressures of their lives, so they react by abandoning them. I sometimes call this small or lesser suicide. They don't kill themselves, but they destroy parts of their lives.

Just to be clear, I'm using "mental health" broadly here. I'm including drug addiction, nervous breakdowns, and traditional insanity under mental health.

In some cases, the initial mental health problem might be temporary. If the person gets interventionist help, that person might recover and return to behavior within normal parameters. In other cases, the problem is more serious. For example, drug addicts trade their cars for drugs and then can't return to their apartments or go to work. Or someone may stop taking prescription medication and undergo a psychotic break.

It is optimistic to think that if we just come up with better support, we can fix homelessness. Homelessness is hard in ways that go far past the simple lack of home. We would need (but do not have) solutions to:

  1. People preferring drugs over anything else.
  2. People not taking their prescribed medication.
  3. People reacting to setbacks by abandoning parts of their lives and rejecting help.

That's three separate causes for homelessness, and we don't have particularly good solutions to any of them. If offered help, they may well refuse it. The first group won't give up drugs in exchange for help. The second group won't take drugs in exchange for help. The third group just doesn't believe in help. It's very hard to help people who will not work with the people trying to help them.

  • It's worth investigating ACE and Resilience scores. There is a lot of focus on "just take your pills," but not as much focus on maybe the person needs physical or cognitive behavioral therapies instead. High ACE scores were correlated (and replicated by the CDC, and independently by other US states) with high substance abuse of any kind (if they can't get drugs, they smoke, or drink, or eat too much) but only some of those are seen as bad (and we assume the drugs are bad, not the cause for their need for drugs.) – Skrylar Sep 14 at 21:54
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    While this may be true, it doesn't really explain why European cities may (seem to) have more homeless people in the big cities than other cities in less developed countries. You'd assume the same reasons apply there. – JJJ Sep 16 at 17:00

Generalizing over all of Europe is difficult. With this caveat:

  • There are always people who prefer living on the street to living in a government-sponsored homeless shelter (which is not a nice place by any stretch of the imagination). Many of them are in bad health, but only extreme cases are sent to hospital against their expressed will. (Alone this does not explain the numbers.)
  • Some people do not live on the street, but they have no regular job and they augment various welfare payments by begging and similar activities.
    • In Germany there are mandatory deposits on many drinks containers (even if they are not reuseable). Collecting bottles in the right places can get a halfway decent hourly rate if nobody else went there before.
    • Also in Germany, in big cities there are newspapers written and sold by homeless. The sellers will usually accept cash donations in addition to sales.
  • Some of the beggars in north-western Europe come from south-eastern Europe. As EU citizens they can travel. The percentages vary from place to place. There is still a sharp imbalance in wealth.
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    As to 3, are EU citizens from other countries not able to access to the same social security as citizens of the countries do? – Blaszard Sep 12 at 15:40
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    @Blaszard: You might be confusing homeless with begging. The Roma migrants might have a home somewhere in Eastern EU. And yes, access to local welfare has been curtailed across the EU precisely due to this phenomenon. dw.com/en/… Working in Romania or Bulgaria pays less than being unemployed in Germany. Japan or South Korea don't have this level of inequality (i.e. EU-wide) within their borders. – Fizz Sep 12 at 15:43
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    @Blaszard, that depends. Generally, if they have been workers for a significant time, then yes. If they just arrived and never worked, then no. – o.m. Sep 12 at 15:54
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    @Blaszard Could you back up the assertion that Japan and Korea have lower homeless levels? Having lived in Japan, I saw many homeless people. They were usually just evicted from visible places. – BlackThorn Sep 12 at 20:02
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    #3 is a specific EU matter. Even if the borders weren't as tight, you wouldn't see North Koreans begging in Seoul. Japan is an island, thus it's hard for poor non-Japanese to go to Japan to beg. I guess travel for poor Asians to Hong Kong or Singapore is harder than it is for poor people to travel within the EU. – Dohn Joe Sep 13 at 10:47

An answer for Austria:

Different groups of beggars and homeless

The Armutskonferenz has a summary of a presentation about beggers which is centered on Austria and from 2014 in German. I did not yet find any peer-reviewed primary sources, but I have no reason to doubt the integrity of the organization and the author.

It lists five groups of beggers (section 3.3):

  1. Travelling beggars: street musicians etc. My interpretation: They choose a life as a poor traveller over a (potentially poor) life in their home country.
  2. Beggars from some parts of Eastern Europe. My interpretation: They come for some weeks/month to Austria to beg. They have no perspective in their home country. They come to Austria, lead a very simply life while they are here and then come back to their home country, where the might have a family to support. Groups of people from the same region travel together and organize their begging (organized begging ≠ criminal begging).
  3. Classical homeless (Austrian) people. See the answeres by puppetsock and Phillip.
  4. People who actually receive social benefits, but like to earn some extra money.
  5. Street Corner Societies and Punks

The welfare system does not cover all cases

  • NGOs receive support from the government and the city for their work, but sometimes this means they are not allowed to offer the supported facility to non-EU citizens.
  • Benefits of the social system do not apply to non-residences of Vienna/Austria: EU-citicens are allowed to travel freely in the EU, but without work they cannot easily become residents of another country.

  • Government-supported facilities where homeless can sleep are not attractive to all homeless. An example is the Gruft in Vienna (run by an NGO, but receives money from the city):

    • It is a big hall where homeless sleep on the floor in sleeping bags, next to each other. Other people snoring can make sleeping difficult, so many homeless prefer to sleep outside during summer.
    • Alcohol and dogs are not allowed inside. This rules out the Gruft for some homeless.

Nobody has to die from hunger

  • There are soup kitchens which still manage to provide enough food for all people who fall in line. But people might prefer to beg for money so they can buy the food they like instead of eating soup every day.
  • Seems to be from 2014, is it a typo or wrong source? – mathreadler Sep 13 at 10:18
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    Nobody has to die from hunger. That's true. But every winter homeless people freeze to death in Vienna. (Although strictly speaking, they don't have to, they just do.) One big reason for homelessness that I keep hearing about (though I have no sources to back it up) in Austria is divorce. Alimony payments kan be high enough to prevent people from being able to afford a flat in Vienna. (This might be one factor why homeless people are predominantly male.) – sgf Sep 13 at 10:46
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    Anecdotally, marriage breakdown does seem to be a common precursor to homelessness, though it's possible of course that the marriage breakdown is itself due to mental health or drug problems. – Michael Kay Sep 16 at 21:57
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    While "organized" does not always mean criminal, it is certainly good at making citizens very hostile towards all beggars - the default assumption shifts from "someone in need of help" to "someone manipulative/deceptive and acting as if entitled to anything from anyone" – rackandboneman Sep 17 at 19:35

(This answer is from a UK perspective.)

One cause of people being homeless is a disparity between housing costs and locally available wages. There are some parts of the country where the number of low-paid jobs available greatly outstrips the number of affordable houses (either rental or mortgage-wise) available in the vicinity. (See, for example, this article.)

Because these people are in full-time employment, they may not qualify for many (or any) welfare benefits. Their choices are then:

  • Find a cheaper residence further afield, and hope they can afford the increased travel expenses.
  • Find a cheaper residence further afield, and hope they can find a job there that will pay enough for their housing.
  • Live on the streets while trying to build up enough saving to afford somewhere to live.

The flip-side to this is, of course, other areas of the country where the housing is cheap, but the employment prospects dire – so people can afford a residence, but it may be paid for by either welfare benefits or begging.

Finally: Minimum wage in the UK for a 9–5 job, Monday to Friday is about £275. If you find it is possible to earn more than that in the same amount of time by begging, then you may decide that it make more financial sense to do so.

If you can make more than £375 per week by begging, then you're earning more than an EU-mandated 48-hour maximum working week does at minimum wage – at least one person has made over £500 per day by begging.

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    Perhaps worth mentioning that certain demographics are more likely to become homeless in the UK, including LGBT+, and a disproportionate number of former military personnel. "Did you know that at least 10% of the UK homeless population is made up of ex-forces personnel?" – inappropriateCode Sep 13 at 10:57
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    In a busy city centre, a beggar will be passed by thousands of people per hour. Even if they only make £1 every 5 minutes (probably less than 0.5% engagement), that's still £12 per hour, tax free, plus any benefits they're entitled to. That beats any minimum wage job. Add in the people who will offer food instead of money, and you can easily remove the need for food shopping. Begging can be a very lucrative pastime in high tourist areas. – timbstoke Sep 17 at 12:29

Being in Germany, and having worked with such people during civil service:

In most cases, and exceptions notwithstanding, I'd say it is not related to taxes, welfare or any other ("external") reason at all.

The welfare system is good, but some people are beyond it. There are people who are absolutely not capable to even claim the extensive free help they are entitled to. They might not be able to understand their situation (due to, lacking a better word, inadequate intelligence; or communication skills; or other reasons). Or they may understand it, but their character might be such that they cannot/will not accept any kind of help. Maybe they are by nature distrustful and view anybody with some kind of authority, even if it is just a social worker, as an enemy.

I have also, in the distant past, worked with or at least witnessed people living in social housing. Let me assure you, that kind of living is not fun at all. It's not like they are just like everybody else, just without going to work. They live absolutely miserably; and everybody I met was in a permanent state of deep clinical depression (which might be biased by me having worked for a social organization caring for such people, obviously). Sure, there may be the occasional freeloader living a grand life while abusing the system, but I'd say the type of beggars you see on the street are not in that category.

Obviously another exception would be organized or professional beggars; I know little about them, i.e., if it is worthwhile, and if you get more money begging than from welfare. There may also be other aspects involved (pimping, pressure from family or "friends"...).

Although the Asian countries you listed (South Korea, Japan, Hongkong) are among the countries with the least homeless population, the European countries also make it to the top of the list.

Thus, it seems to be more a matter of appearance than an actual disparity in the homeless population. In my country (Austria) there are certain politicians who try to ban begging in certain areas of the cities, e.g. central squares, shopping streets.

A disparity in how the society in various countries deals with homeless people and beggars, a beggar isn't necessarily homeless, might also explain a disparity in your observations.


In many European countries/cities there are street-newspapers, which are made and sold by people that struggle economically, i.e. not only homeless people but also people who live from social benefits and participate to earn a little extra. In such newspapers one often finds the biography of some participants.

There I read multiple times of people preferring to live on the streets and not in a shelter, due to the shelter's house-rules. Some shelters don't allow dogs, have separate dormitories for men and women, or don't allow alcohol on its premises. Thus, if you have a dog, a spouse, or an alcohol addiction, there are reasons to remain on the street.

Eradicating homelessness would be great, but don't assume that a high-tax welfare system is not achieving great things because it is failing to achieve that one goal.

Speaking for the UK, most people here have never heard the term "medical bankruptcy" for example.

Our welfare systems are under great strain because of an ageing population and slow economic growth, but still disabled people get some help (not enough), as do out-of-work people, the long-term sick, etc. It's far from perfect but also far better than nothing.

Update: it was quite reasonably pointed out that the above doesn't answer the question. Well, in my mind it did, but I was not explicit enough, so here goes...

The need will always outweigh the money available, so it always falls to politicians to prioritise how the money will be spent. The reason you see the levels of homelessness that you do is simply because other needs are given a higher priority. I'm not saying that's right or wrong, but it's the reason.

I also think it's important to remember and point out the good stuff whenever we're talking about a failing.

I think the question is a bit like asking "you spent all that money on a Ferrari and it doesn't have a CD player?" CD players are great but there are a lot of other good (and bad) aspects to that car.

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    People in Europe would be far worse off, if they hadn't built their welfare systems. For me as Austrian citizen, reading stories on the US healthcare system is at times simply apalling. If I think back on the injuries and sicknesses that have befallen me and my family over the time, "medical bankruptcy" and severe harm, if not premature death, would have been a certainty in a less well-built wellfare state. If you're dead, lower taxes mean zilch. – Dohn Joe Sep 13 at 10:40
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    This answer does not explain the reasons for homelessness in Europe. Please try to answer the question. Answers which do not address the question might get downvoted and eventually deleted. – Philipp Sep 13 at 10:59
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    The question relates homelessness to 'high-tax' welfare systems so I think it more than fair to address the second part of the question / assumption and explain that a welfare system can have goals more than just eliminating homelessness and begging. – Eric Nolan Sep 13 at 14:59
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    This still does not answer the question. While money is limited, the welfare systems in the mentioned countries (including the UK) do pay enough to avoid homelessness. It may be a small, cold apartment with shared facilities, and not in London, but there is money enough to give everyone a roof above their head. – MSalters Sep 14 at 13:55
  • There is money enough to give everyone a roof above their head, yes, but only if we decide to spend less money on other things. That might be the right choice to make, but the current crop of politicians have not chosen to do so. – Martin Sep 14 at 13:56

The homeless/beggar issue is more recent than the welfare state. For a significant period of time in some of these countries, there was substantial welfare and no corresponding large number of beggars or homeless.

In recent years it became easier to travel to these countries and easier to learn about them. Word spread that life is good there so more people started coming. Some of them come to be beggars, because even being a homeless beggar in a European city can be nicer than being employed and having a home elsewhere. The countries themselves also became more accepting of foreigners and beggars.

So why is the homeless and beggars so common in Europe (Western and Scandinavia), despite its high-tax, large-welfare system, and why do these people not seem to have access to it?

These countries may have a more expanded welfare system, but they do not have infinite resources. If too many people use it, it can still be overwhelmed. Also not all poor/homeless/unemployed people are aware of the system or know how to take advantage of it. Some are not able to (for instance if they are ineligible due to their immigration status). There are also some people who choose to be beggars or homeless because they find it preferable. Granted, I think those are a small minority.

Basically, there is a school of thought that if you give free things to the homeless, that will encourage more homeless. It seems like some countries are now experienc Now, probably not many people would decide to become homeless just for the benefits, since even in the most progressive countries it's still a pretty hard life. But the benefits will definitely attract homeless from other areas where it's even harder to be homeless. The homeless are not rooted like trees, after all. They try to move to wherever they think they'll have a better life.

Is it only in prominent urban cities or also common in suburban and rural?

Cities are a lot more hospitable for the homeless and beggars. There are a lot more people to beg from and it's easier to walk to places. There are also more free services they can use. Many cities have tourists which makes begging a lot easier.

Living in the countryside requires higher self-sufficiency, which usually requires more possessions like a car, kitchen, etc. The homeless can't afford to acquire these nor have anywhere to store them. In the city they might take a bus, eat at a soup kitchen or fast food restaurant, so it's less of an issue.

Lastly rural and suburban communities usually don't like homeless or beggars, and kick them out or harass them. Cities seem to have largely given up and accepted them.

A big part might be that in Europe, homeless people and beggars tend to be tolerated. While most people would be probably happy if all the homeless people disappeared from the street, they're more into avoiding them than outright hostility. Homeless people usually already lost all of their normal social ties, and the pressure from strangers is basically non-existent; and indeed, there's enough people who are outright supportive to keep them alive (along with things like collecting deposits on glass bottles).

This is even visible with officials. For example, public transport usually has rules that prohibit you from riding the bus/tram if you're not "hygienic" enough. They also require you to pay fares. Many places have it forbidden to sleep on public benches. Many forbid begging. And yet - you see homeless people doing all that, and very rarely are any of them "evicted". Indeed, it's a pretty common sight where I'm from (Prague) to have an entirely empty tram car, because people rather avoid the horrible smell of that one homeless guy than have him thrown out.

The legal system is also usually built around threats of punishment. But there's very little you can threaten a homeless person with - you can't take their money and property in fines, you can't lock them up in prisons, and physical abuse came out of favor in Europe a while ago. The reason why most people avoid criminal acts (ethics, morality...) is often non-existent too.

In some ways, those people are living the socialist dream - nobody can force them to do anything, they can do anything they want, live anywhere they want, they have no property to be burdened with, often live just from day to day, without having to concern themselves with what's going to happen next year... Real freedom, some might say. Obviously, for most people, comforts of life based on division of labor are more important than this kind of freedom, but there are always those who choose to live in the midst of Canadian wilderness or something.

This is indeed a problem that has been increasing in recent years, and I can think of several reasons:

  1. The traditional welfare systems have often been a bit too ambitious and therefore too expensive to maintain. The fundamental problem, I suspect, is that it can be very difficult to delimit what genuine needs should be covered by welfare, and politicians are understandably reluctant to take away help that is needed - should you stop caring for the elderly, or cancer patients, or ....? Instead they have tended to make benefits less accessible, by adding bureaucracy. This hits those hardest, who are most vulnerable, because they simply don't have the resources to handle it. These are the genuine homeless.

  2. The other major factor, I believe, is organised crime: many of the beggars are, in effect, slaves, who have been smuggled in by people traffickers, and who are placed in strategic places by their owners; I see this happening myself from time to time - they are dropped off in the morning, hand over their takings some time during the day, and are picked up in the evening.

It is my belief, if you will forgive my rant, that the main reason why this is happening, is that governments in Europe have widely adopted what is loosely called "neo-liberalism", under which services, which traditionally were provided by the state, are now increasingly being privatised. This is convenient for the politicians - they can claim that this saves money, because private companies are more efficient, and when the services fail, it is no longer their responsibility.

  • @jeancallisti I'm not sure I understand your comment - which are side effects of what, exactly? – j4nd3r53n Sep 13 at 12:43

This might be totally outdated, for France, but when I was living there social housing wasn't always available, despite there being lots of it.

HLMs are the typical social housing there: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habitation_à_loyer_modéré

In order to get subsidized housing you can't earn above a certain limit. However, once you do get accepted, there is not going to be much checking of whether you're now earning more. And I don't believe they can just kick you out for earning above the maximum. True, some of the estates are in such bad shape most people would leave if given the chance, but that's not always the case.

Which means that some people end up using social housing when they don't need it and people who do need can't get in. So, yes, lots of housing welfare spending, but no, not necessarily targeted towards those most in need.

Here's an article covering this kind of issue: http://leplus.nouvelobs.com/contribution/889268-un-hlm-pour-un-couple-gagnant-4-790-euros-nets-mois-m-hollande-ce-n-est-pas-normal.html

Anecdotal, sure, but not necessarily unrepresentative.

Last, France has, for various economic, structural, political and discriminatory reasons somewhat of a poverty trap where welfare recipients stay welfare recipients, thus putting more pressure on housing needs. Abolishing welfare would not be the answer, but even high levels of welfare spending do not equate to much well-being for the most destitute.

Speaking specifically for Ireland, there are two main causes of homelessness. The first is the opioid abuse epidemic in Dublin. A large proportion of people on the streets suffer from substance abuse problems. Most come from poor backgrounds, possibly domestic violence and abuse, and fell through the cracks. Very sad...

Then there are people who lost their homes in the 2008 global economic crash. A lot of people who got mortgages before 2008 ended up paying bought homes that were way overvalued, and ended up in negative equity. A lot of people lost their jobs or had wage reductions due to austerity and their homes were repossessed by the banks. The banks themselves were of course bailed out by tax payers to ensure that foreign investors and bondholders in the Irish property market casino didn't lose any money. This category was less likely to end up on the streets, many ended up staying with friends, family or in some cases the government had them reside in hotels.It was, and still is quite a mess.

While there is a government housing list, families and single mothers with children are prioritized. Men, especially single men are very low priorities and are unlikely to ever get government social housing.

  • And government housing is rarely faster or cheaper to build than private housing; so in the end, you're making housing more expensive overall, endangering people who are already close to the margin - the extra costs or taxes can push them over the cliff and instead of a self-supporting person you have another who needs government support. The same way with the "cheap mortgage policy" that caused the housing crisis in the first place - the people who lost their homes in the crisis wouldn't have been able to afford mortgage in the first place if not for the "cheap credit". – Luaan Sep 17 at 11:16

Two reasons :

- "New" homeless. The number of unemployed people (or people with very low income) is growing extremely fast since the 2008 stock market krach. So the social welfare cannot keep up (by "social welfare" I mean the branch in charge of finding everyone an affordable home). Some people might eventually get access to their welfare rights, but those are delivered too slowly while the number of requests grows too fast. In the meantime, those people have to remain on the streets. There are also more and more refugees who are not in a "temporary" state (they have no chance of ever going back home) but fail to obtain the refugee status. So they just stay on the streets, with no social welfare rights.

- Severe entrance barrier. Because the number of requests keeps growing and most European states are switching faster to private insurance and welfare systems, the remaining public welfare has been torn apart in the last 30 years by more and more insane new rules and heavy paperwork. It's the vicious circle of : "we don't have much resources to provide so let's spend all the resources into controlling that the resources are well spent". That creates a maze of paperwork for homeless people who are already fragile. A portion of them just give up and let themselves slide down onto the street life. That's what gives traction to the sort of speech "they're homeless because they want to".

Not a full answer but note that a big part of European welfare systems, in spite of all their diversity, take the form of mandatory insurances or benefits tied to employment (with the UK perhaps being an exception). If you have a job, you pay into a (private or public) system that covers risks like illnesses, unemployment, etc. If you never paid into it, come from abroad or somehow slip through the cracks and cannot prove you have been employed recently, you are not entitled to any of that.

Even broader benefits, when they exist, typically require an address, a bank account, quite a bit of paperwork, etc. There are initiatives to make them more accessible, e.g. charities providing homeless people with a mailbox and an address or social workers helping with the forms, but it's not an easy problem to solve and it's known that a significant number of people entitled to some sort of welfare benefit are not applying for it.

So the bulk of the money goes towards providing some income redistribution between different part of the working/middle class and smoothing out broken careers, not to the most vulnerable people. It's not designed to fight extreme poverty or rough sleeping but to improve the lives of workers.

Finally, there are also things like emergency shelters of course but they are not necessarily particularly well-funded or related to the welfare system as Europeans understand it.

protected by Philipp Sep 13 at 9:28

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