According to a study by the University of Applied Sciences of Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW) undertaken between 2020 and 2022, there are large differences in homelessness between French-speaking Switzerland and the rest of the country.
The study, which researched homelessness across Switzerland’s eight largest cities (Basel, Bern, Geneva, Lausanne, Luzern, Lugano, St. Gallen and Zurich), identified as many as 2,740 homeless people, a figure that underestimates the real number according to the director of a charity that helps the homeless interviewed by RTS.
The figures showed a significant gender imbalance among Switzerland’s homeless. Homeless men (83%) outnumbered homeless women (17%) by nearly 5 to 1.
Those affected by homelessness were on average 40 years old within a range of 18 to 82. There was a cluster of people between 30 and 50 (36%) with significantly fewer over the age of 65 (4%).
Foreigners were disproportionately represented among Switzerland’s homeless. They made up 83% of the homeless while making up only 26% of the population. Only 17% of the homeless were Swiss nationals. Nationals from Romania (20%), Nigeria (12%), Algeria (9%), France (6%) and Italy (4%) made up 51 percentage points of the remaining 83%. At a regional level, subsaharan Africans (19%), north Africans (22%) and eastern Europeans (24%) made up nearly two thirds (65%) of Switzerland’s homeless. Asian (2%), latin American (5%), western European and other nationals (22%) made up the rest.
Certain Swiss cities had far higher homelessness rates than others. The number of rough sleepers and people aged 18 or over using emergency shelters per 100,000 residents was nearly 10 times higher in French-speaking Geneva (63.8) than it was in German-speaking Zurich (6.5). Lausanne (24.9) and Basel (20.4) were also above the Swiss average (19.0). Large cities with low rates of homelessness were Lugano (3.8), Luzern (2.8) and St. Gallen (1.6 per 100,000 residents). The rate in Bern was 10.5.
Overall, 61% of Switzerland’s homeless were undocumented, a percentage that rose to 75% in Geneva and 79% in Lausanne. This same rate was far lower in Zurich (41%), Basel (38%), Bern (18%) and Lugano (14%). In the other cities the rate was zero.
Widely different rates of those of undocumented status among the homeless point to why there are so many more homeless in French-speaking Switzerland.
Foreigners are drawn to places where they have a greater connection, something that to a degree follows the geography of language. Eliane Belser, who is responsible for emergency social assistance in Lausanne, thinks the difference is explained by the networks of the people who arrive in Switzerland. In an interview with RTS, Belser said, for example, people from North Africa tend to target French-speaking cities where they have links with members of their diaspora.
In the case of French-speaking Swiss cities this leads to higher numbers of undocumented immigrants that have greater difficulty finding work and accessing welfare and are therefore more likely to end up living on the street.