Nowhere to Go: The Plight of Homeless Families in Sweden

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A few years ago, I attended a meeting with a group of parents whose families were precariously housed and at risk of becoming homeless. They all lived in the same municipality in the greater Stockholm area of Sweden and were trying to mobilize around their families’ right to housing. A journalist from the local newspaper was going to write about their situation.

We were meeting in a flat that one of the families had occupied for the past two years. It was a short-term let with the public housing company, which had been renewed every six months, but in November the family was given a final notice and were told they would have to leave. ‘Every day when I come home from work, I look for housing’, the mother that lived there said, ‘but nobody responds when I say that I have four children!’

Two families that lived in the same block had similar stories. They had short-term contracts with the public housing company and although they were working, they were unable to find somewhere else to live. Another two mothers had recently been informed by social services that they would no longer pay for their hostel accommodation and another two had been given notice that their social contracts through the municipality would be terminated.

Although the reasons for being at risk of homelessness varied, these families all shared the same distress, fear and anger that nobody seemed to take their situation seriously or offer some form of useful support. They were simply told that they had to sort out their own accommodation, but although they felt they did everything that was in their power, they failed.

They had attended a ‘house-searching’ sessions organised by the municipality, but to no avail. They had also been given lists of hostels and hotels in greater Stockholm that they could contact in case they had nowhere else to turn. Feelings of frustration were boiling in the room. What was the housing company going to use the flats for? Why could nobody explain the reason why they had to leave? Where were they expected to go? How would it impact on their children? Did children not have rights in Sweden? The families had many questions but did not feel that they received any satisfactory answers.

 

Categorical Exclusion

The situation of the families that I met that evening is representative of the experiences of a growing number of families with children that face housing exclusion and homelessness within the Swedish welfare state. Their demographics were also typical of those primarily affected – families with a foreign background and those headed by a single mother.

Between 2011 and 2017, the number of families with children in need of support with emergency housing increased by 60 percent, according to official figures. The so-called secondary housing market, a form of halfway housing where tenants sign their contract with social services as intermediates, has also been growing for some time. Between 2008 and 2013, this form of restricted social contracts increased by 45 percent from 11 700 to 16 386. According to the Swedish National Board of Housing, Building and Planning, this increase could mainly be attributed to families with children unable to access the regular housing market.

However, since 2019 there has been a reverse trend with the official number of families counted as homeless decreasing. Notably in Sweden’s largest urban areas. Is this due to improved access to housing for families? Or are there other possible explanations?

Several of the families that I spoke to at the meeting would later share letters and notes from social services that gave a clue to how decisions were made. In one of the letters, it was stated that: ‘It is every individual’s personal responsibility to organize their housing and it is a parent’s responsibility to ensure housing for their child’.

In Sweden, the obligation to support and accommodate homeless people is generically regulated in the Social Service Act, which states the following:

“Persons unable to provide for their needs or to obtain provision for them in any other way are entitled to assistance from the social welfare committee towards their livelihood and for their living in general. Through the assistance, the individual shall be assured of a reasonable standard of living. The assistance shall be designed in such a way as to strengthen his or her resources for independent living” (Chapter 4, Section 1).

Nevertheless, the Social Service Act is a framework law, which means that it is open to interpretation and discretionary decision-making. Although this part of the law has not changed since the 1980s, the situation facing the families that were about to become homeless did indicate a shift in how the duty of social services to assist was perceived and implemented by the local administration.

Mothers with young children who had previously been considered as eligible for housing support, were suddenly served notices that they had to find their own accommodation and that it was their personal responsibility to ensure that their children were housed. To them, those decisions came out of the blue, and they could not understand what had changed.

At the time, I also found it difficult to comprehend what was going on, but over the years there has been more evidence from several Swedish municipalities that when guidelines for assessment and decision-making in this area change, the number of officially homeless families are reduced and thereby also the cost for social assistance. This was the case in the municipality where I met with the families, but also in other cities across the country. For example, in the city of Malmö there was a steep decrease in the number of homeless children counted in the yearly official mapping exercise from 1347 in 2018 to 692 in 2019. Two years later, in 2021, the number of children where down to 355.

Critiques argue that new guidelines introduced in Malmö and elsewhere put families with children at a disadvantage and at risk as they tend to be categorized as structurally homeless and thereby not eligible for adequate support. Their options are often to double up with family or friends, to rent a room as lodgers or to turn to the over-priced parallel housing market where only temporary contracts are on offer. How many children that live under such circumstances in Sweden is unknown and unaccounted for as they are not included in official counts of the homelessness population despite their precarious living circumstances.

This also became the fate of the families from the meeting. One mother with three children was initially offered temporary accommodation in a hostel but was sanctioned when she was deemed as not making enough effort to solve her situation. A church stepped in and later she moved between family and friends and temporary lets. Another mother with two young children moved in as a lodger with a couple in a 2-bedroom flat. A third one was so desperate that she took her daughter with her to the mosque and asked strangers for a place to sleep. These families no longer counted as homeless as they were not getting support from social services.

 

Care and Responsibility

It could be argued that these mothers took responsibility to ensure that their children had a roof over their head, knowing that the circumstances under which this was done were far from ideal. Yet, many of them felt questioned and disempowered.

A central theme in the narratives shared by the mothers was the care and responsibility for their children. Or as one mother expressed it: ‘If I was on my own it would be completely different’.  Diverging views, or understandings, of the notions of care and responsibility are arguably at the heart of the contradictions that envelop the Swedish response to family homelessness.

The idea that it is every individual’s personal responsibility to organize their housing and that it is the parent’s responsibility to ensure that their children have a roof over their head, as expressed in letters from social services shared with me by mothers, assumes that everybody has the same opportunities to do so. It embodies the moral values of a position that we are all personally responsible for the circumstances in which we find ourselves and that it is our own responsibility to care for our well-being and that of our children and our communities.

At the same time, Sweden is a country that prides itself to embrace democracy, feminist values and the well-being of children. Is this compatible with a notion of personal responsibility that fail to take in to account the impact of poverty, unequal access to basic needs such as housing and other exclusions in public life?

Temporary accommodation is not a solution to homelessness, but neither is the categorical exclusion of families from gaining access to adequate housing solutions which in recent years systematically has been put into practice in Sweden. As pointed out by Patricia Williams (1991, p. 102): ‘categorizing is not the sin . . . the problem is in the failure to assume responsibility for examining how and where we set our boundaries’.

To assume responsibility would, for those that set the boundaries, include following up and document what happens when people are denied the support they are desperately asking for. It would also involve listening to what mothers, like the ones I met at the meeting all those years ago, say about their situation and show care in action. Not just words. A caring society recognizes that children, together with their caregivers, need to have a place to go to that is safe and secure.

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