A roof over everyone’s head
What’s on the plate for cities? According to Laura Colini, URBACT Expert, it's due time to put ROOF’s pledge to eradicate homelessness into action.
“Housing is a fundamental necessity and the access to housing is a fundamental right, as citizens who lack housing cannot participate fully in society of avail themselves of all their fundamental rights.”
The report on the fundamental rights in the EU, adopted by the European Parliament in September 2022, comes at a right time when the ROOF Action Planning Network has wrapped up its activities. Through this network, for the first time in 20 years, the URBACT Programme has co-financed a project for cities to eradicate homelessness.
The partner cities were led to collaborate towards the same goal, building on several actions, commitments and initiatives. It’s a successful story of how local, national and European policies can be brought together by URBACT. In this case, tackling one of the most pressing issues: the right to adequate, dignified and affordable housing.
Gathering the take-away lessons from ROOF, this article looks at the challenges lying ahead for our cities – which hopefully will inspire future Action Planning Networks’ partners.
Encouraging cities to join forces
Back in 2016, the EU Urban Agenda started its activities with the overall objective to create thematic and voluntary exchanges to group cities, Member States and international organisations in thematic partnerships to discuss better funding opportunities, knowledge production and regulations at EU level. At the time, none of the four pilot partnerships – on migration, air quality , housing and poverty – officially had the topic of homelessness in their agenda, nor did the URBACT III Programme.
The European Federation of National Organisation Working with Homelessness (FEANTSA) – a major player at the EU level, providing studies, advocacy and annual reports on housing exclusion in Europe – was finally invited to join the EU Urban Agenda Partnership on Urban Poverty only a few months after its launch. Thanks to the knowledge and input provided by FEANTSA the partnership supported two actions:
- to end homelessness by 2030 through the reform of social inclusion strategies at national level;
- and to build capacities, so different funds – ERDF, ESF and FEAD – could be used to end homelessness. These actions were a plea for the participation of all levels of governance.
URBACT came in in at the hinge of this call for action: the programme was timely ready to organise a lab session on the topic of housing and homelessness during the URBACT City Festival, which took place in Lisbon (PT) in September 2018; in addition to the ‘Cities fighting homelessness’ policy lab, which was co-organised by URBACT and FEANTSA in Paris (FR) later the same year, welcoming both beneficiary and new-comer cities.
This policy lab was intended as follow up to the Urban Poverty Partnership, encouraging cities to engage and to take practical measures towards these two main partnership actions. Participants heard about the Housing First Hub, the re-use of vacant properties as temporary housing, homelessness prevention methods among vulnerable groups and the Housing Solution platform.
The municipality of Paris shared its practices about the ‘Solidarity Night’ (“Nuit de la solidariété”) and a national representative from Finland presented the key findings of the Housing First model in Helsinki (FI), alongside national policy commitments. At last, the policy lab ended with a pitch from Patricia Vanderbauwhede, from Ghent’s city administration (BE), so other cities could join their 2019 bid to embark on the Action Planning Network journey.
At the time, the city of Ghent had already committed to the United Nations’ pledge to #MakeTheShift and, today, it has successfully led nine EU cities in the framework of ROOF.
It takes a village… a city, a country and the EU
Ghent’s bid became a reality with the ROOF Action Planning Network, working at full speed to end homelessness using housing solutions. For three years, the cities of Braga (PT), Glasgow (UK), Liège (BE), Odense (DK), Pozńan (PL), Thessaloniki (EL), Toulouse Métropole (FR) and Timisoara (RO) have tested new ways of working and changing people’s mindset to change local and national policy-making, thus, putting the Housing First model in action. This is proof that it takes a city, a whole country and the EU to effectively end homelessness.
Following extensive documentation in terms of policy design, advocacy at all levels, capacity-building trainings and events – such as the network final conference and the Winter School – the ROOF Network has came up with four recommendations:
- the EU must develop an Ending Homelessness Strategy 2024 – 2025, which must include tangible solutions to improve housing affordability and quality;
- the EU and the Member States should develop a joint monitoring system, with harmonized indicators and ad-hoc surveys, to inform policy decisions in regards to homelessness;
- housing-led approaches, as the Housing First, should be promoted as key methods to tackle homelessness;
- EU structural and investment funds should be allocated to tackle this challenge by expanding the affordable housing stock, while providing support to allow people to live and thrive independently.
When co-developing their local Integrated Action Plans, ROOF partners were able to experiment with different practices. For example, the Greek city of Thessaloniki set up a Social Rental Agency. This is a non-profit agency that, henceforth, addresses housing related issues from poor and vulnerable groups. It also works with generating affordable housing stock, piloting measures for future larger Housing First programmes.
The city of Ghent has taken a more holistic approach. The municipality understood that mental health, drug care clinics and social were topics which should be dealt alongside housing solutions. That’s why the city has pilot a Small Scale Action where an Assertive Community Treatment team (ACT) was put in place, so different professionals could work together – from city planners, to public health and social workers. Using common data and an open dialogue approach, the ACT team collaborates to help vulnerable individuals and households. The results from this experience will feed the Housing First system and the training of future ACT members.
The participation of the Tolouse Métropole in the ROOF Network has brought a shift in the territorial strategies: from the “staircase” approach to the Housing First model. This has led the metropolis towards a more precise knowledge around homelessness and a better overview of what can be practically achieved in the long run. This partner worked in its whole metropolitan area to raise awareness, to increase the affordable housing stock and to consolidate a multidisciplinary support offer.
Call for long-term measures
During the ROOF Network lifespan, a series of radical and sudden changes hit the world. The global pandemic showed the sheer evidence that those who experience homelessness are the most vulnerable. Covid-19 indeed made the misery more visible and harsh, but regardless of the virus, the conditions driving individuals towards homelessness are systemic.
At the closure of the ROOF Network, housing has also proved to be an urgent matter in the context in Ukraine. Back in July, the European Commission has approved the Safe Home Initiative, to support and guide Member and Partner States, regional and local authorities to organise and facilitate private housing initiatives to prevent the risk of homelessness for those fleeing the war
Likewise, the consequence of the skyrocketing electricity prices has increased an energy poverty, which will most likely affect people in vulnerable situations. According to the 2021 study by FEANTSA, energy poverty already touches about 50 million households in the EU. The study sees ‘Just Transition Mechanism and Renovation Wave’ targeted to become decisive instruments of the energy transition towards a climate-neutral – and fair – economy. Thus, addressing not exclusively training and employment opportunities, but also the eradication of extreme forms of poverty through investment in adequate housing for low-income and vulnerable groups.
Working to end homelessness means to rethink how societies function, how the economies and finance create inequalities, how all governments engage with their welfare, energy transition, social and housing policies. Not to mention urgent crisis, which are beyond anyone’s control. This also shows that the actions pledged by the ROOF cities are fundamental to be prepared towards any kind of unprecedented scenario, because they work on reversing the mechanism of poverty.
That’s precisely why local, national and European governments need to be ready for unexpected societal challenges, through long-term solutions. The ROOF cities have joined, with a manifesto, the European Platform on Combatting Homelessness (EPOCH), which is an important strategy to build a common understanding and commitment for concrete actions.
As for now, many countries are taking the extra mile to re-design national plans and emphasise the Housing First model. In 2021, the Italian government has renewed its interest in homelessness prevention policies, via the ‘National Recovery and Resilience Plan’. It allocated 450 million EUR to the provision of Housing First services and it increased 2.8 billion EUR to the construction and rehabilitation of the social housing stock.
In France, the draft for the ESF+ national programme on social inclusion (2021 – 2027) includes actions to support maintenance and access to housing. This shall be done via multidisciplinary support, which includes people based in temporary housing to promote access to permanent options. This creates a new scope of use for the European Social Fund for tackling homelessness and pushing for the Housing First approach.
Czech Republic, having first-hand witnessed the success of the Housing First pilot in the city of Brno (CZ) in 2016, has launched a national call on this subject with a budget of 6 million EUR, in 2018. Today, the country is trying to up-scale the initiative by drafting new calls, following a consultation process with the civil society. Both calls envisage a total budget of 35 million EUR until 2027, with the first one being published later this year.
Cities needed NOW!
It’s important to grasp what cities can actually do in terms of housing and homelessness – the ROOF Network represents an incredible experience in this regard, yet a lot more remains to be done. Climate adaptation growing concerns related to aspects as the staggering energy prices or the “renoviction” – landlords who evict their tenants, on the grounds of planned renovations in the building.
The 2019 EU Green Deal aims to make the EU climate-neutral by 2050, which includes a “renovation wave” to improve energy performance in buildings. This inaugurated an investment in energy efficiency renewal in the housing sector. Although overall all well intended, if proper measures are not put in place to protect the vulnerable from the adverse effects of the “greening”, we might witness a steep increase of urban poverty.
There’s definitely no time to waste. There are plenty of actions cities can take to seize opportunities at EU level to find socially, environmentally and just responses. That’s why the upcoming call for URBACT Action Planning Networks – the first one for this programming period – is a great occasion for cities to explore ideas and experiment with new solutions.