Social Housing’s challenges in housing homeless in Europe.

A question that needs to be asked by social housing providers both in the USA and Europe is what role do we take in regards to those who are completely homeless.  At first thought, the answer seems simple.  Social housing providers will do anything possible to help reduce the number of people who are homeless.  However; the structure of social housing is not always conducive for helping those who need immediate housing. There are often long waitlists which make it impossible to help an individual or family immediately. Outside of the structural issues that make it hard to serve homeless when they need help, some homeless individuals have high social needs.  Housing them next to other social housing tenants like families and or senior citizens is not always seen as a good mix. From a business standpoint rent collection, nuisance complaints and maintenance issues can also be seen as potential problems when housing the homeless.

Ending homeless is a complex theme and the responses to this question from different countries is just as complex.  From my view, social housing or the allocation of social housing does not necessarily mean there is coordination with homelessness policy or strategy.  A report by the European Observatory on Homelessness looked at the relationships between social housing and homelessness policy.  I found many similarities between the disconnects present in EU countries and disconnects found in States across the USA.  Lets examine some of the major barriers to social housing for homeless people in the EU.

13 countries reported on the relationships between social housing providers and homelessness strategy.  The following 6 factors were determined at major issues:

  1. “Insufficient supply of social housing relative to all forms of housing need
  2. Allocation systems run by social housing providers focused on meeting forms of housing need other than homelessness.
  3. The requirement on social housing providers in some countries to balance different roles, including pressures to continue to meet housing need while also moving towards marketization and social enterprise models.
  4. Attitudinal and perceptual barriers centered on a belief that homeless people would be difficult tenants and difficult neighbors.
  5. Perceived tensions between avoiding spatial concentrations of poverty and associated negative area effects, and housing significant numbers of homeless people.
  6. Poor policy coordination between NGO’s, social services and housing providers.” (Social Housing Allocation and Homelessness- European Observatory on Homelessness, Nicholas Pleace, Nora Teller)

These barriers come as no surprise to anyone in the social housing field. A closer look at these fields shines more light.    A lack of social housing can be as simple as not enough social units in general or a shortage of a certain size or type.  An example is Germany, where more 1 bedroom units are needed.  Germany’s population is becoming older and smaller in family size. Systems allocation is another way of saying policy and procedures for admitting families into social housing.  Often priority is given to older people, disabled, lone parent families and sometimes key workers.  Homeless often fall into these categories but other types of policy can act as a barrier to housing.  An example is a polices against housing homeless are rules that prevent housing people with previous rent arrears, those evicted in the past, criminal backgrounds or living without a roof.   Many providers (Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic had debates about whether social housing companies should even play a role because of the intensive needs of many rough sleepers. Balancing roles between being a market based real estate agency and a social provider has not been easy for many providers.  Providers often have to set rents at a level low enough to help low income families while also covering operating expenses and maintenance.  Sometimes loans must be repaid which puts pressure on a provider to take less “high risk tenants”.  Perceptual barriers includes the idea that all homeless people are rough sleepers with high social needs.  This is not true but the perception can lead providers not to house as many homeless or have a bad perception.  Housing management problems are the main concern in this situation. Concentration of poverty is a concern of housing homeless for many social housing providers.  Social mix is often considered important for creating vibrant health communities. Coordination was also seen as a problem.  Poor relationships between providers and homeless agencies often led to issues in housing homeless.  Some housing programs were guaranteed only if a social services provider promised the social housing company to assist the homeless person or family.  Poor communication on this front could in theory cost a homeless person housing.

The reasons preventing homeless from finding homes within social housing companies are similar to reasons I hear of in the USA.  The authors bring up three methods for increasing social housing providers role in working with homelessness.  I agree with two of the three.

  • Reassurance: Ensuring a social services package is in place when a high needs household needs housing with a provider.
  • Education:  Demystifying many ideas on homeless families or person is also important. Not all homeless are high needs coming right from the street.  No doubt those households exist.  However, programs like Housing First show these families can still be helped.
  • Sanctions: This would be in the case of providers who have a mandate to help low income families but are focusing on those who do not need housing assistance or who already have access to the market.

I agree with the first two but not sanctions.  Housing providers may need to develop more market rate units to finance other operations. However; I do agree they cannot lose sight of the main goals. Social housing providers need to look at new ways to house the homeless without thinking all homeless need great depths of social care.

I worked with social housing companies in the USA who are on the cutting edge of serving homeless. Both housing authorities are involved with rapid rehousing programs and looking for new innovative ways to reduce homelessness. On the other side, I am well aware of housing companies who cannot help homeless populations because of some of the same limitations our friends in Europe have. Social housing companies are only a piece of the puzzle when it comes to serving the homeless population. However, social housing providers do play a role and must look at limitations of housing homeless and how they might be overcome. A good start is looking over these 6 reasons listed by EU members to see which apply. Once this is done, a provider can look for methods to get around these limitations.

This blog is based off an article by the European Observatory on Homelessness titled Social Housing Allocation and Homelessness by Nicholas Pleace and Nora Teller.  Please read the wonderful piece here-

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