It surprises me how the World faces so many different opportunities, derived by different contexts, from country to country, from region to region and, even more frightening, within the same city. That’s the case of the city of Lisbon, when we talk about poverty housing.
There is no standard definition of “poverty housing” but it can be seen as the absence of “adequate housing” that is defined by the UN International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.” In other words, adequate housing stands for “a place to live in peace and dignity” and thus, poverty housing refers to a deficiency in that condition.
The United Nations addresses basic needs in its definition of poverty, but it also recognizes that poverty is multidimensional, with poverty housing as a separate category that can affect — and be affected by — other aspects of a family’s life. Actually, there are studies that show and justify the correlation between poor housing conditions and the degradation of an individual’s quality of life and wellbeing.
From our perceived knowledge of the world, we might not be surprised when reading facts like “in Papua New Guinea, close to 70 percent of people living in rural areas do not have access to improved drinking water and 60 percent do not have access to improved sanitation” but we are probably not aware of the dimension, although in a smaller scale, that this type of poverty has on developed countries – that is why I call it hidden poverty. Portugal is not an exception.
A recent study conducted by the Energy Poverty European Commission reveals that 23.8% of Portuguese people cannot heat their houses and 28% of them live under humidity, infiltrations and holes in the windows, which are responsible for the high number of slow and silent deaths during the winter in Portugal. According to a recent article, these deaths contribute to the 28% rate of Excess Winter Mortality in Portugal, contrasting to the 15% rate of the EU, making Portugal the second worst country in the EU, only after Malta, to live in an inadequate house, during winter season. Adding to these frightening numbers, there are hundreds of others who, in spite of not being under a “life or death” situation, live under miserable conditions, which constraint their personal development as human beings and marginalize them from the society.
Thus, poverty housing is a hidden type of poverty that is not only causing deaths, as also undermining the development of individuals, especially children, through health problems, low academic achievements, social exclusion, among others. In fact, according to Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit organization that aims to tackle housing poverty around the world by rehabilitating houses, any inhabitant living in poor housing conditions is at increased risk of negative health outcomes relating to their environment. Children, because their bodies are still developing, are more susceptible to these environmental hazards. Additionally, a longitudinal study that followed toddlers through age five found that just having relatively modest elevated lead-paint levels at home reduced IQ test results in children by 7.4 points and additional research suggests that a decline in one IQ point leads to a loss in lifetime earnings ranging from $18,470 (regardless of sex) to $23,085 for men and $20,606 for women.
As fortunate human beings, we as students of NOVA, had the opportunity to access one of the most basic rights: the education. However, that access was a consequence of a set of conditions verified in our lives, like adequate housing. What would have been if we had never made it to primary school? How would we have done our homework and studied for tests if we had not had access to electricity at home? If things like parental support, perception of the education’s value and strong motivation to work hard towards a dream, were met, we would still probably be here, although with a tougher life experience from the past… But what would have happened if we were only “ordinary humans” that follow whatever life path is at our disposition and was shown to us from our role models, and we were living in poverty? Would we still be here, at this university, preparing a dignified future? Probably not… But fortunately, we are. Let’s use this opportunity to allow opportunities to be built for others.
Margarida Castro Caldas