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Welcome words by Dr Vesna Leskošek at the 7th European Meeting of People Experiencing Poverty

Dear delegates, dear guests and other participants at the 7th meeting of people experiencing poverty!

This year's meeting addresses the four pillars of the campaign against poverty - social services, services of general interest, housing and minimum income. All four pillars essentially influence the social status and social opportunities of people living in poverty.

Social services implement the public policies determined by governments and parliaments at national or regional level. Policies enable or impede access to services and programmes and, in this, physical accessibility is important, e.g. public transport access, placement in the community affording maximum proximity to the people requiring the services, the presence of architectural obstacles, and so on; one important factor is social accessibility related to the possibilities that different groups of people have of using social services. Another important aspect in terms of accessibility is how many bureaucratic barriers prevent the effective implementation of social rights. Bureaucratic barriers often reflect strategies for the reduction of social rights. Apart from accessibility, an important factor is how people are treated by social services: are they considered a social problem, are they stigmatised as inactive, unintelligent, as persons unable to provide for their own existence and avoiding their duties? Or are they encouraged, are their possibilities broadened? Do social services try to remove barriers to more efficient inclusion in the society, treat users with respect and maintain their dignity? Social services may be privatised, too, which often means that they are not available to all the citizens of a country under the same conditions, and the interests of such services often place profit before people's dignity.

Minimum income is one of the most important pillars of the campaign against poverty, one which sets the standards of a dignified life. For this reason, many discussions focus on what a dignified life is, to whom it belongs and how it can be ensured? The rights to cash benefits are social rights acquired by the workers' struggle and are not granted voluntarily, so they must be addressed accordingly. People unable themselves to ensure their own life with dignity are entitled to these rights. This is often overlooked and, in some debates, we hear comments about people becoming dependent on cash benefits and thus losing the motivation to seek employment. Such discussions may lead to the abolition of cash benefits or to the reduction of resources, intended to motivate people to search more actively for employment. However, experience shows that the reduction of cash rights leads only to higher poverty and not higher employment. Cultural and economic progress sets higher standards of the dignified life to which all people are entitled, regardless of whether they may ensure it by their own work or not. The fact is, people do not live in poverty from choice; they become poor due to structural characteristics mostly influenced by national policies. Therefore the State has an obligation to take responsibility for people having a decent existence. And the implementation of the minimum income is an efficient instrument for this. It must be stressed that social rights still exclude growing groups of people such as migrants, undocumented immigrants, the homeless and other unregulated persons.

Housing is not just a matter of providing a space and a roof over one's head but rather a home, which is of decisive importance for human safety and stability. Home offers a private space in which we can maintain our dignity, recover our strength, rest, have fun, maintain social networks as well as preserve the memory of our past by means of the objects we possess. All this provides safety and also keeps us from being constantly preoccupied with issues of basic existence. At our disposal we have water, electricity, heating, gas and other infrastructure enabling us to devote our time and energy to other things. If all this is not in place, we are forced daily to think about our fundamental survival: how to keep clean, where to sleep, where to keep our personal belongings, where to get the energy to get through the day. Housing policies are therefore one of the key aspects in reducing the poverty level, for they enable us to shift vital energy away from providing fundamental conditions of survival, such as where to find food, where to sleep and so on, to thinking about employment possibilities, education, gaining skills and so on. Decades of experience have shown that the housing market as such does not provide decent housing to people living in or close to poverty. The State should therefore manage the housing policy in the awareness of the importance of ‘home' in every person's life. The State must ask itself about the characteristics of decent housing provided to people residing in the country.

As evident from the applications to the workshops, services of general interest are, to some extent, a hidden pillar of poverty, for their effects are not sufficiently explored nor is there a general awareness of their importance. General awareness of the importance of services of general interests is also impeded because the lack of resources – electricity and water supplies, sewage systems and similar – is confined to seriously marginalised groups of people living in remote rural areas and in shanty towns at the outskirts of big cities where people try to secure a roof over their heads by building makeshift housing without appropriate infrastructure. Recently, the problem has also appeared in deteriorated residential areas in cities inhabited by immigrants, elderly people, Roma, homeless people and other excluded groups of people. Services of general interest include the buses and trains which, in this age of flexible employment, offer the only opportunity for people to find and keep jobs. Very few people can expect to find jobs in their home town; more and more must travel several hours daily to get to their place of employment. Without appropriate public transport, this is impossible. At a time when shops offering basic consumer goods are concentrated in large shopping centres, public transport has also become decisive for people living in city centres or in remote suburbs, and even more so for those living in rural areas with no means of transport of their own. Such persons also have difficulties in accessing basic services such as healthcare, education and similar.

All of this will be discussed over the next two days. Past meetings have shown that we cannot expect to achieve results and changes immediately; it is important, however, that people with real experience of poverty and the people planning programmes and policies to reduce poverty establish a serious and lasting dialogue contributing to reducing social inequalities in future. I hope that the present event will contribute to this, too.

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Date: 16.05.2008