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Is Homelessness an International Collective Action Issue?

Sarah Reeves


Homelessness is a highly visible issue. If you look on the street corners of any metropolitan area across the world, you are likely to see individuals living in homelessness. Affecting 1.6 billion people worldwide, homelessness is nondiscriminatory in its nature: impacting people regardless of their age, gender, race, sexual orientation, or nationality. Further, this staggering statistic continues to grow, as evidenced by a 6 percent increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness since 2017.

The Problem of Homelessness

How is homelessness a social issue?

As of January of 2022, 582,468 people were living in homelessness within the United States. This means that approximately 18 out of every 10,000 people were living in homelessness. Of this number, 22 percent were considered “chronically homeless,” meaning they experienced long-term or repeated incidents of homelessness.

Homelessness is not a social issue that the United States faces alone. Rather, it is an issue that affects every country in the world, regardless of a nation’s level of development. Currently, the country with the largest population of those living in homelessness is Nigeria, with nearly 24 million homeless individuals. This high number might be attributed to Nigeria’s lack of adequate social structures that provide housing for their rapidly growing population. In addition to Nigeria, two countries with inordinately high homeless populations are Pakistan and Egypt. Pakistan has a current count of approximately 20 million homeless individuals within the country. This makes up about 8.2 percent of their total population. At a similar percentage, Egypt has approximately 12 million people living in homelessness, making up about 10.5 percent of their population.

How is homelessness a legislative issue?

As explicated above, homelessness is a universal issue affecting every country in the world. Given that this is a universal problem, one might wonder why there have been no comprehensive solutions reached. In fact, in their Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN asserts that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, [and] housing.” This value that the UN places on the right to housing further begs the question of why homelessness has gone unresolved for so long.

While the UN cites housing as a necessary human right for all people throughout the world, they have no means of reasonably enforcing this right. While the UN can send humanitarian aid or help in the realm of development, there is no obvious path toward the end of homelessness. Moreover, though there are a multitude of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that assist with aid work or send humanitarian workers to aid in development, including the United Nations Development Program, World Health Organization, World Food Program, and the World Bank, there is also nothing these NGOs can do to guarantee the end of homelessness.

From the view of individual countries, it is also difficult to greatly reduce the number of people living in homelessness. For example, though the U.S. federal government has more power to make legislation supporting the end of many factors that lead to homelessness, they leave the enforcement of anti-homelessness legislation to individual cities, as the experiences and reactions of those living in homelessness differ greatly depending on the area, the structures in place to assist those without a permanent home, and the laws regarding where those in homelessness can reside. In leaving the issue of homelessness regulation, and in turn the issue of eradicating homelessness, to local governments, the U.S. federal government positions themselves as irresponsible for the problem. This lack of accountability on the federal governmental scale makes it even more difficult for those who wish to overcome the barrier of homelessness.

The Collective Action Problem of Reducing Homelessness

As national governments place their focus on problems that they deem to be more pressing, homelessness continues to grow around the globe. If countries do not confront homelessness within their own borders, there is virtually no incentive for them to challenge homelessness in other nations. This demonstrates the collective action problem that is international homelessness. In the most basic sense, collective action is when individuals come together to work for the common good. However, collective action problems arise when the individuals wish to act based on their own best interests rather than the interests of the group as a whole. The individuals can then choose to act cooperatively and find the solution to the given problem, or act selfishly and perpetuate the problem. While all countries would theoretically benefit from finding a solution that would eradicate this social problem, there is no practical benefit for them to invest their time, money, and resources in helping people find shelter internationally if the international community does not reciprocate this aid. For a country trying to gain influence with other countries, or soft power, the implications of helping to eradicate homelessness across the globe would theoretically help to improve their status with said countries. However, for a country trying to gain influence with other countries by some other means, namely militarily, resources might be better expended in other ways, which might leave homelessness on the backburner.


The above information lends itself to a conclusion that homelessness is an international collective action problem. With all countries facing the same issue, they would all benefit from a solution to homelessness. However, because there are no mutually beneficial incentives for their work other than the altruistic eradication of homelessness, they are dismayed from working toward this solution for the common good. This results in the perpetuation of the social problem of homelessness. With the lack of state support, those experiencing homelessness must rely on the aid and small support from nongovernmental organizations to survive in the midst of hardship. Perhaps, if there was a way to incentivize states granting resources to work toward a solution to homelessness, they would work together for the benefit of the international community. Such possible incentives could look like monetary incentives through subsidies granted to countries that prove work to end homelessness, international tax and trade incentives, or perhaps, naming and shaming for those that do not participate in the necessary collective action.



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