Helping the Roma -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Helping the Roma

By Lucija Popovska

The Roma people—often referred to as gypsies—are a heterogeneous ethnic group that live primarily in Southern and Eastern Europe, Western Asia, Latin America, the Southern part of the United States, and the Middle East. Worldwide there are an estimated 8 million to 10 million Roma, most of whom reside in Europe. They speak Romani, an Indo-Aryan language, although most Roma speak the dominant language of their region of residence.

The Roma today remain the most deprived ethnic group of Europe. Almost everywhere their fundamental civil rights are threatened. Discrimination and violence against them is common in many societies. Needless to say, in many regions of Europe, significant portions of the Roma communities live in destitute poverty.

Habitat for Humanity International’s Europe and Central Asia area office first got involved in housing for Roma in 1999 in the village of Svinia, Eastern Slovakia. (See the article “Responding to Man-made Disasters” in the International Affiliate Update, Volume 12:3.) This initial involvement and the difficulty to get the project off the ground for several years have brought many lessons: HFHI in Europe had no previous experience in working with groups at this level of destitution and social exclusion, each challenging the traditional Habitat model fundamentally. Even more, changing the perceptions of the non-Roma communities has required involvement of skills and practices that are not part of the core competencies of HFHI. With a steep learning curve and many slow steps forward, HFHI identified a suitable partner in Slovakia — a local NGO called ETP — and brought the Svinia project to a successful end in 2005.

This experience, as well as the growing capacities of HFH programs in Europe and Central Asia, has made us realize that the poverty in the Roma communities in our part of the world is alarming and urgent, and it requires specialized knowledge and tailored multifaceted interventions.

At the end of 2005, HFHI E/CA initiated a research project on Roma housing in Hungary and Macedonia, in partnership with HFH Hungary and HFH Macedonia, with the ultimate objective of the development of models and program interventions suitable for tackling poverty amongst the Roma. Also, the project aims at expanding to Slovakia (where currently a second project is run in partnership with ETP) and Romania. The researcher for the project was an independent consultant, Yael Ohana, who worked closely with the E/CA Program, HFH Hungary and HFH Macedonia teams.

The research involved sifting through international and local studies and publications and analyzing the learnings relevant to poverty housing; field visits and meetings with Roma community representatives, Roma NGOs and local governments; and several working sessions with HFH staff.

Some of the main findings of this research regarding Roma poverty list the following common characteristics:

  • Long-term unemployment
  • Income insufficient to cover daily subsistence
  • Welfare dependency
  • Large households
  • Very poor housing and hygiene conditions
  • Poor health and lack of access to health care
  • Poor education
  • Lack of access to public information and opportunities
  • Involvement in shadow/informal economy

The research mapped two types of Roma settlements: a rural one (or outside of the major urban centers) and an urban or suburban one. The rural Roma settlements are usually completely segregated from other population groups, lack most basic infrastructure, illegal or informal by definition of public authorities, isolated from basic public services (health, welfare, education) and any socio-economic development opportunities, and often close to environmental hazards.

The research finds the urban Roma settlements among other urban poor, partially or fully integrated in majority society, in degraded public/rented housing or squats, unable to afford access to utilities even when access is available, and with poor access to welfare and public services.

In general, our research concludes the following regarding the Roma housing conditions:

  • Extreme poverty
  • Absence of indoor water supply and/or (functional) sanitation
  • Absence of, or insufficient heating
  • Extreme overcrowding
  • Inappropriate building materials
  • Housing is not in conformity with safety standards
  • Wetness/dampness
  • Degraded housing
  • Infestation by vermin and lice

Among the barriers to addressing Roma housing problems, several should be emphasized: the illegal status or unclear ownership of the land on which the settlements are built; segregation; lack of political will to implement “radical” housing policies due to losing political popularity; the cost of housing, especially in urban areas and the extreme regulation of the sector; and limited family resources.

Conclusions and future steps

  • Poor housing is both a symptom and a cause of ongoing poverty among the Roma people. Further, the condition of Roma housing and settlements reinforces the majority of the prejudices towards the Roma and leads to crime.
  • Any housing intervention has to take into consideration all of the specifics and the interlocking of the poverty factors among the Roma. The relationships between education/literacy, employment, housing, health, discrimination and social exclusion are very intricate and indivisible. Therefore, any isolated intervention will probably have limited success — only an integrated and multifaceted approach can lead to the desired outcomes.
  • A multi-partner involvement in a Roma housing intervention is compulsory. HFH can not undertake a housing intervention as described above on its own due to the lack of capacity, lack of competencies and lack of power to resolve certain issues (the legality of the settlements, for instance). Involvement of local partners, especially local government and NGOs, is key to a successful project.

HFH Macedonia has identified partner communities and potential partners. Together with the partners, the organization has developed the first project draft that they hope to implement in 2007 and is currently trying to raise funds for the project. HFH Hungary is following by researching partnership opportunities and scanning potential partner communities.

Lucija Popovska is program director for Habitat for Humanity in Europe and Central Asia.