• Homelessness is a global problem with around 150 million people lacking a roof over their heads.
  • It affects even wealthy places: in London homeless more than doubled between 2010 and 2017.
  • Activists are sleeping in sub-zero temperatures

In a snowy field at the bottom of one of Davos’ many ski slopes, Andrew Funk, a former homeless man turned activist, pauses outside the draughty teepee where he will spend the night. He encourages me to keep an eye out for shooting stars and jokes they’re sometimes difficult to spot in Davos because ‘you don’t know if it’s a private jet or a star.’

Funk, 38, became homeless in Barcelona in 2015 after a failed business venture left him penniless. A new father, he was separated for four months from his newborn son, an experience which turned what should have been the happiest moments of his life into a nightmare.

Being homeless, he says, can be an othering and lonely experience where human decency is a luxury, not a given.

"A simple thing for people to understand is that a homeless person is more likely to help them if they are homeless than a current friend they have right now," he said.

"Homelessness means losing almost everything, except for the possibility of a stranger caring."

Now, years after his time on the street, Funk is President of Barcelona-based Homeless Entrepreneur, a non-profit organisazion that campaigns against homelessness through organized ‘sleep outs’ around the world.

During Davos, he and his small team have been sleeping in the freezing cold, attending sessions on the fringe of the annual meeting and engaged with locals and guests.

Andrew Funk prepares for a night outside in sub-zero temperatures
Image: David Knowles

A truly global issue

Homelessness is truly a global issue. Every night, millions of people go to sleep without a roof over their head.

Researchers estimate that roughly 150 million people, 2% of the global population, are homeless - and the figure could be much higher, because of under-reporting. With the expansion of cities and the movement of populations from rural areas to cities and towns, the problem has only got worse. What’s more shocking is how homelessness is prevalent even in some of the world’s most prosperous cities and countries.

homelessness is a major problem
Homelessness is a major problem in the UK and many other wealthy countries

In London, the number of rough sleepers has more than doubled between 2010 and 2017. Germany and France have both seen the number of homeless people rise and in the US, on any single night, more than half a million people go homeless.

Some countries have taken decisive action. Finland has been lauded for its ‘housing first’ policy which puts giving homeless people housing the first step in their reintegration into society and solving other health or mental issues.

For Funk, understanding and solving homelessness means bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

"The only way you’re going to reduce that gap is by including those being excluded economically."

Homeless Entrepreneur’s own process is holistic, with people being given nine distinct advisors covering every aspect of life, from legal help to education, to help them make the transition into more stable living.

Homeless Entrepreneur activists have been sleeping outside at Davos since 2018, but Funk is keen to emphasize that their presence is not a protest. Rather, he says, it’s an action that he hopes will he heard, even though he thinks the chances are slim. Quick to offer solutions, he’s slow to criticise.

"My role is not to tell someone they’re fascist for what they’re doing, it’s to ask them to include me in the process. Our question is really how can we add value."

Thinking forward to the next Annual Meeting in 2021, Funk has an invitation for participants curious to understand the realities of homelessness.

"I would invite them to sleep out with us. Maybe next year... which participants would be interested? That’s definitely something that’s plausible."