Czech Gov't Agency for Social Inclusion reports on transitional housing programs now underway
The Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion has released research analyzing so-called transitional housing systems currently being implemented throughout the country in detail. Such systems are being used by more than 10 cities and social service providers for working with people who are unable to access standard housing for various reasons.
The report may serve as background material for designing the country's social housing law. It presents specific proposals for making these systems more efficient when it comes to arranging long-term housing for those involved in them.
Example #1: Between the clinic and the residential hotel
Mr Červeňák is in his fifth year of living in a municipally-owned residential hotel. He moved to the town in question with his mother prior to 1989, when they lived in a municipally-administered apartment building in the town center.
After 1989, he and his mother had to leave that housing. After 10 years of growing disagreements over how their shared household should work, Mr Červeňák moved into a privately-owned residential hotel at the age of 25.
He then moved into a residential hotel run by the municipality because it was less expensive, staying there for three years. Then, as he describes it, he "latched onto some homeless friends" and lived on the street for two years.
He next turned to the town's social services department, which offered to reaccommodate him in the municipally-owned residential hotel, which by then was being used as a hostel and as the accommodation of last resort for those who had defaulted on rents in other municipally-owned properties. He still lives there today.
The residential hotel is one component in the town's transitional housing system. Those involved in the system who succeed at its second level of housing (temporary shelter) are over time able to transfer into its third level, that of independent housing.
Even though today Mr Červeňák meets the critera for transitioning to that next level, his social worker is hesitating to recommend it. He suffers from long-term psychological problems and regularly visits a psychiatrist who prescribes him medicine.
If he does not take his medicine, he gets into repeated conflicts with other tenants or police and also has difficulties controlling his alcohol use. Municipal police officers who are on duty in the neighborhood of the residential hotel supervise whether he is regularly taking his medicines and are in regular contact with him.
Mr Červeňák is, therefore, stuck at the residential hotel and the transitional housing system doesn't really know what to do with him now. There is no network for the kind of community care giving in the town, such as a personal assistant, that would make it possible for him to live more independently.
He is, therefore, dependent upon his social worker's capacity to get his psychiatrist, municipal police officers, and field workers at the residential hotel to involve themselves with him. He is just one of many people who have ended up in a grey zone between being hospitalized in a psychiatric treatment facility or spending their lives in temporary housing.
He has applied for and repeatedly been denied funds to pay for the assistance he needs because there is a lack of coordination between the assessment services and the Labor Office. Apparently he will not be making it into independent housing any time soon.
Example #2: On the threshold of a new life (with concerns)
Mr Ryba got into a complicated housing situation roughly 10 years ago, when he left his parents' home to live with his girlfriend. Their relationship fell apart over time and he ended up homeless.
At the time the only option for him was a commercial residential hotel. "The cockroaches, the dirt, the smell - it was just a real horror," he says today of one of the most difficult times in his life.
In 2009 he learned of the option of getting a municipally-owned apartment through the transitional housing system that was being created. He had the hope of leaving the residential hotel and moving into a rental apartment.
He also learned that in order to get a good score on the assessment that would be used to allocate apartments, it was important that he be debt-free. Before applying for an apartment, he paid a back debt of CZK 250 that he owed the city for garbage services.
At the end of the winter of 2010 he applied for an apartment and had to wait one month for the commission to announce its decision. He missed being awarded a rental apartment by just one point.
Mr Ryba then completed a re-qualification course, applied for an apartment again, and received one - after having been involved with the system for six months. The "third-level" apartment, however, is in an excluded locality.
The apartment itself is clean and was reconstructed with "floating floors"; the prefabricated apartment block where it is located is fully occupied and maintained by a property manager. This is his fourth year living there.
Mr Ryba previously worked for the municipal technical services but has been unemployed since May 2014. His contract ended and he began to draw unemployment.
He has since completed another re-qualification course on how to drive a forklift truck. His income is currently comprised of unemployment benefits and a housing benefit that roughly totals CZK 7 500 per month.
From the standpoint of the transitional housing system, Mr Ryba might be considered an ideal user of the program. Despite his initially lacking just one point on his assessment he managed to transition to the third level, was willing to go live in an excluded locality, has no debts, and has been voluntarily cooperating with the social worker assigned to him.
Mr Ryba used to visit his social worker approximately once every three months to demonstrate that he was making his payments and sometimes to address more serious matters with her. The transitional program, however, was set up so that this kind of collaboration with the client ends after a certain amount of time, with the aim of leading the client to total independence.
Work with Mr Ryba ended in the fall of 2014, just when he was about to become a father at the age of 34. As a single man he had been willing to accept housing in a "ghetto", but he could not imagine living there with a newborn.
Mr Ryba wants to move into town, but the system has no apartments available there now. He is actively seeking employment but has found none.
Without sufficient income it is difficult for him to save the money for the deposit required by the company that owns most apartments in the town (and by other landlords). He could take out a loan, but he doesn't want to begin his own family from a position of debt.
These are the brief stories of just two people involved in transitional housing systems. They represent two of the 10 stories included in the study produced for the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion by researchers Jaroslav Klepal and David Kocman.
How the Lada and Olivie transitional housing systems work
The study follows two transitional housing systems now running in two towns. The report labels them the "Lada" and "Olivie" systems.
It also maps the developments in the housing situations of 10 people involved in these systems. The transitional housing approach has been repeatedly presented, including by the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion, as an example of good practice in the effort to improve the housing situation of people in excluded localities and those who cannot access the standard apartment market.
Now this system has been subjected to critical analysis by these studies, which have produced many important findings for their future work and for the law on social housing being drafted. The main finding is that these existing transitional housing systems have so far achieved only low levels of efficiency compared to what they might have achieved if they had been correctly set up.
The number of persons who access regular apartments through the system is very low compared to the numbers of those remaining in the so-called lower levels, such as hostels and residential hotels, and also when compared to the numbers of persons waiting to get into the system (in the systems studied, approximately two clients out of 10 on average managed to access regular housing). There are also not enough appropriate housing units in these systems - in many cases the "end goal" apartments in the system that are classified as "third-level" are still in socially excluded localities, so while people may be getting out of a residential hotel, they are not moving to a "good address".
It is also not enough just to focus on people acquiring the competences they need to access housing. Arranging housing itself should be the main focus of these programs, but instead transitional housing systems focus on people acquiring the skills necessary to remaining in rental housing.
Many clients, however, don't need to learn how to be tenants. They just need housing.
In transitional systems, many people who already have these skills are stuck in lower levels of the system (in hostels or residential hotels). Their exclusion from the housing market has a purely economic basis that the transitional system cannot address.
Many of the criteria used to assess clients and match them to housing in these systems cannot be influenced by the clients at all. Some clients did not qualify for housing not because they lacked the skills to be tenants, but because of many different factors beyond their control (the price and size of the units in the system, low-income persons having just CZK 1 500 of disposable income per month, benefits being disbursed in an uncoordinated way, periodic reappraisals of benefits and instability of income, limited or non-existent job opportunities, and ethnic discrimination by employers and landlords).
Also, social work in these systems was not always the motor driving clients to acquire new competences that it was imagined to be. The social counseling offered was not adjusted so that clients who really do not know how to perform certain financial transactions learned how to do so.
Instead, the social work approach was far better set up to advise people who already had such skills. Social workers were able to advise their clients how much money to pay in respect of their various obligations, for example, or how to find out who a certain bill was from.
In conclusion, the authors say that "The stories in this report demonstrate that the rapid advance of some clients through the transitional housing program did not happen thanks to their becoming motivated or receiving sufficient support, but because they just needed appropriate housing of ordinary quality that would correspond to their economic options. These were not people who needed to learn normal life skills - they already had them. Social workers were soon able to send such clients to the 'higher' levels of housing. On the other hand, the slow advancement (or zero advancement) of other clients testifies to the fact that they very often have nowhere else to go because appropriate housing simply does not exist, or that such clients have yet to demonstrate that they have (somehow) acquired the competences needed (from somewhere) to live without requiring support services."
When considering how to provide people in difficult situations with quality housing that they can stay in, the following might be important:
1) There must be enough appropriate housing units in these systems. Nine out of 10 users followed by these studies could have been housed somewhere with minimal or no support services if only the municipality and other social housing providers had just had enough apartments of ordinary quality available that were cheap and small.
2) There is a need to work primarily on eliminating clients' actual poverty, not just on enhancing their skills when it comes to tenancy. People in transitional housing systems cannot apply the ordinary skills of everyday life to their circumstances because they are greatly impoverished and because of other factors such as uncoordinated, unstable benefits disbursal, lack of credit, lack of job opportunities, current practices on the housing market, ethnic discrimination, and social stigmatization. More effective social work would be able to distinguish among the factors behind these clients' circumstances and avoid the notion that a failure to access and maintain housing is predominantly connected to a client's lack of competence.
3) Beefing up social work and social services networks - people with complex needs must be given long-term assistance and support with housing in addition to the advice that is usually offered (a good example of this kind of assistance is the program run by the Rytmus association, which works with people leaving social care institutions in the Karlovy Vary Region). Effective support for people with complex needs requires the building of a robust network of regional services, including community services for people with mental illness, addictions, various forms of disabilities, etc. Effective support is inter-agency support, and besides housing it should involve the coordination of services for supporting employment, education, health care, child welfare and probation services.
4) Consider the risks posed by the current transitional housing system and the support services it offers. This system works well for property managers and owners, but for the clients and for the social work itself, it would be better to separate the provision of housing from the provision of social support services. Social work is supposed to be in the best interest of the client, and that can be compromised if the social worker also represents a landlord. Property management and social work are two different roles and there are different interests to be protected in each case: A social worker will find it difficult to offer appropriate support to a client on how to manage housing-related debts when he or she must also collect back rent.
The authors of the research followed 10 cases of families and individuals whose lives ad become intertwined with transitional housing systems. They conducted 30 interviews with the actors participating in both kinds of transitional systems.
They also studied relevant documents, including applications for transitional housing, records of support services provided, clients' individual plans, bills for rent and utilities, and various other records related to the trajectories of those using the transitional housing systems. All of the data was accumulated during 2014.
"Each of these stories, in its own way, is unique and unrepeatable. For that reason, it is not possible to understand these stories as ideal types that generalize and summarize the experiences of the entire population of those using transitional housing systems," the authors conclude.
The study was first presented in July to experts and representatives of various ministries. Now it will be made available to Agency staff and their partners in the localities.
It will also be used as an important background material for the ongoing work of drafting a social housing law for the Czech Republic. The first draft of that law should be prepared by the end of this year and it should take effect as of 2017.
Government takes Agency's annual report under advisement
At the cabinet session on Wednesday the Czech Government took the annual report of its Agency for Social Inclusion under advisement. The submitted material provided a structured overview of the Agency's activity during 2014 at central and local level in a total of 35 municipalities that year.
"Among the biggest successes and also one of the biggest challenges for the Agency in 2014 was certainly the creation of its Coordinated Approach to Socially Excluded Localities. That will make it possible during the next program period of the European Structural Funds to finance projects from three Operational Programmes in at least 70 municipalities and regions, projects that comprehensively address the issue of social exclusion. A media campagin against hate violence and racism, HateFree Culture, was also successfully launched and is succeeding in alleviating xenophobic sentiment and breaking down stereotypes, especially among young people, through its successful deployment in the field and through social networking," said Deputy Human Rights Minister Martina Štěpánková, who manages the Human Rights Section.
Czech Human Rights Minister Dienstbier considers the Agency's activity to be a basic tool for the Government on the issue of social inclusion, especially at a time when the number of socially excluded locations in the Czech Republic is growing. "A priority task is stabilizing the activity of the Agency and arranging for its operations in the upcoming period, as well as engaging in dialogue with representatives of cities and municipalities about how the support provided by this department can become more efficient," the minister said, adding that he is dedicating his trips to the regions to that task.
As of December 2014 the Agency had prepared its Report on the Fulfillment of the Strategy for Combating Social Exclusion 2011-2015 for the Government. Of a total of 71 measures described by the Strategy, 16 have been completely fulfilled, 37 have been partially fulfilled and 18 have yet to be fulfilled.
These results demonstrate the need for a coordinated approach to the problem and should serve as the background materials for the creation of a revised Strategy for the period until 2020. During 2014 the Agency's research activity also continued (some of the most interesting research included an analysis of economic motivations for work, entitled "When Work Pays"), as did its collaborations with local action groups and Regional Authorities and its drafting of legislation and commenting on legislation (such as the design of the draft bill on social enterprises, collaboration on designing the draft social housing law and the law on public tenders, and commenting on the Schools Act).
As of 30 June 2014, the Agency completed its collaborative activity in nine cities and municipalities according to plan after the expiration of the three-year time period (but will continue to offer these local authorities long-distance support and the option of joining the Coordinated Approach to Socially Excluded Localities). On 1 July 2014 it began collaborations with nine new localities.
"Of our activities at local level we must highlight the launch of what has been to date the broadest collaboration of the Agency with a single city, that of Ostrava. A three-member team is working there in a special regime that closely collaborates with local non-profit organizations, officials, police, politicians, schools and other actors," said Radek Jiránek, the Agency's director.
Other municipalities now collaborating with the Agency include those of České Velenice, Frýdlantsko, Chodov, Kralupy nad Vltavou, Příbram, Slaný, Veselí nad Moravou and Vrbno pod Pradědem. The Agency, as the Government's instrument for addressing social inclusion, aids cities and municipalities with mapping the problems of socially excluded localities and their residents, getting to know them in detail, and then designing and launching long-term procedures to solve them (including fund-raising for those processes).
The Agency brings together local entities (cities and municipalities and their authorities as well as educational facilities and schools, employers, the Labor Office, non-profit organizations, police and the public) to collaborate on social inclusion. At the central level the Agency collaborates with ministries, bringing information from the local level to the state administration and contributing to the coordination and development of state social inclusion policy.
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