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Climate change is one of the greatest issues facing humanity. As global temperatures rise, devastating effects – such as the impact of rising sea levels and droughts – mean that vast swathes of the earth are rapidly becoming uninhabitable. The UN[1] estimates that over 20 million people each year (on average) are forced to leave their homes as a result of extreme weather events. Climate change will not only cause more people to become homeless, but those who are already homeless will be particularly vulnerable to the impact.

Sadly, there are already numerous instances of communities becoming displaced following extreme weather events. For example, Cyclone Idai displaced over 128,000 people in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi in 2019, resulting in an enormous humanitarian crisis. In 2022, Pakistan saw severe flooding due to heavy rainfall and the melting of glaciers, which resulted in over 2.1 million people becoming homeless. People who have been displaced then face further risks when provided with inadequate emergency shelter, or if population density in lesser-affected areas suddenly increases – essential resources can become limited and rent potentially skyrockets.

Those already homeless – such as people living on the street – face greater impacts of climate change, since as a population they are also more likely to be experiencing chronic health conditions. Extreme temperatures mean a more significant impact on their immediate health, when people are unable to access appropriate shelter. For example, high temperatures present a greater risk of heat stroke and dehydration, and uncharacteristically cold winters increase the risk of hypothermia.

What are the solutions to this global crisis? Emergency aid provided to displaced people should be high quality, to reduce the risk of further hardship and to support them in rebuilding their lives. More homes for people facing homelessness are required, but these should be built to standards that make these homes resilient to future climate change, and in a way that does not exacerbate carbon emissions. A brilliant example of this approach can be seen in the “Ecohood” sustainable housing project in Los Angeles, USA – microhomes with solar power and other energy performance features have been built, which are intended to be affordable and house those in need quickly. At a local and national level, we can also advocate for procedures to protect homeless people during severe weather – as well as greener policies in general – to be adopted.

Regarding the role of the Vincentian Family, the FHA works to identify creative solutions to homelessness, including via its “13 Houses” campaign. For example, the De Paul House project in New Zealand (a campaign member) expanded into rural areas of North Auckland in 2019, to provide housing to migrant workers facing challenges relating to the climate, among other difficulties. More widely, the Vincentian Family can raise awareness of the complex relationship between homelessness and climate change – as Pope Francis said in Laudato Si’, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” We should all start conversations about attempting to limit the environmental impact of our own work and look towards what we can do to support communities who are disproportionately at risk from climate change.

By Laura Hillier

[1] UNHCR, Climate Change & Disaster Displacement