According to a recent report by the Federal Housing Office (OFL) there are an estimated 2,200 homeless residents in Switzerland and another 8,000 at risk of losing their homes.
The authors of the report collected information from 616 municipalities across 22 cantons to compile the data. 616 municipalities covers around 28% of Switzerland’s total.
Reasons often cited for homelessness included overspending, debt, drugs and social factors associated with migration.
Another key factor behind homelessness cited in the study is the high cost of accommodation. Switzerland’s housing is expensive, something reflected in low rates of home ownership and high levels of household debt, which is mainly mortgage loans. Only around 36% of homes in Switzerland are occupied by the owners and household debt in Switzerland is above 130% of GDP, the highest in the world. If those already in the country are stretched it follows that newcomers with few means stand little chance when competing for housing.
The scale of homelessness was most pronounced in cities. The percentage of municipalities reporting homeless was higher in German-speaking Switzerland than in French- and Italian-speaking Switzerland.
The study showed that municipalities were aware of the limits of their ability to reduce homelessness and the risks of people losing their homes. Most had no means to accommodate the homelessness and said that cantons were not always there to help.
By comparison, the latest figures on homelessness in London, a city with a population similar to Switzerland, show there were 7,690 homeless people with another 5,630 people threatened with homelessness. Compared to London, Switzerland’s rate of homelessness is roughly a quarter of London’s.
At the same time, several groups working with the homeless in French-speaking Switzerland contacted RTS claiming the report’s findings underestimate the total number of homeless in Switzerland. Alain Bolle, director of CSP Geneva, a christian charity, pointed out that a survey by the University of Geneva published in September 2021 found 700 homeless in Geneva alone. In Lausanne, Vevey and Yverdon-les-Bains there were nearly 800 people living in homeless shelters, with a further 550 in a similar situation in the canton of Fribourg. These three figures together come to 2,050, close to the 2,200 estimate for all of Switzerland in the OFL report. However, these figures may not be reliable either. Homeless shelter numbers cannot be simply added together said Eric Mullener, the head of a shelter in Fribourg. Homeless people are mobile and can end up getting counted more than once, he said.
The authors of the report urge the political authorities in Switzerland to improve surveys and data to gain a clearer picture of homelessness, which has been poorly studied to date.