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Czech Republic must change its approach to homelessness, international experts advise

22.11.2017 17:12
Members of the Platform for Social Housing protested on 29 September 2015 outside the Czech Labor and Social Affairs Ministry against a draft amendment to the law on aid to those in material distress that is supposed to reduce housing benefits for the impoverished. (PHOTO:  Jan Čonka,
Members of the Platform for Social Housing protested on 29 September 2015 outside the Czech Labor and Social Affairs Ministry against a draft amendment to the law on aid to those in material distress that is supposed to reduce housing benefits for the impoverished. (PHOTO: Jan Čonka,

On 20 November, international experts on how to address homelessness and housing shortages from Finland, France and the United States of America visited Prague to recommend the Czech Republic transform the way it addresses these issues. According to the experts, the only actually functional solution in the world, including for the Czech Republic, is to systematically house homeless persons with support and to prevent their being made homeless in time - this is the only way to reduce their numbers and save the state the most financially as well.

The Czech Republic, according to experts, is not undertaking anything like such an approach. After its recent failure to adopt a law on social housing, the country is now meant to begin efficiently drawing on EU subsidies and implementing its obligation by the end of 2020 to move 6 000 households with minors from residential hotels into standard housing.

The numbers of people who are influenced by the growth of real estate prices such that they lose their housing have long been increasing in the Czech Republic. Those who have lost their housing or who live in residential hotels or shelters now number almost 200 000 people.

This development, however, is not unique to the Czech Republic, it is common to all western countries. Some of them are managing to efficiently lower the number of homeless persons and to simultaneously save on public expenditures.

The most efficient country in this regard is Finland, which has transformed its system of aid to homeless persons through an approach based on rapidly providing housing and support services to them. Finland is now the only EU country managing to reduce homelessness, and the transformation is contributing savings of EUR 15 000 annually per homeless person.

"We changed the way we think:  The starting point is Housing First. The principle is that the first thing you must provide to a person with complex needs is permanent housing, a home, and that opens up better opportunities for addressing his or her other problems. At the same time, we have taken a strong stance on implementing this program. We concluded a contract with the biggest ciites for several thousand apartment units and we included services in the areas of health care, housing and social work as parts of the whole. We were determined to implement a big transformation and we responded quickly to mistakes," Finnish expert Peter Fredriksson, who is responsible for designing and implementing the new strategy, quoted former Finnish Minister of Economic Affairs Jan Vapaavuori as saying about it.

Addressing homelessness by basing the solution on promoting affordable housing with the support of high-quality social serves is also advocated by Katharine Gale, an expert consultant from the USA and former director of an interdepartmental commission of the US Government on addressing homelessness who currently advises the City of San Francisco, California, and who stated that "The experience from the USA demonstrates that we are far more efficient at ending homelessness if we aid homeless people with quickly accessing housing and connect them to support services if necessary. We also need to correctly target work at the local level. It is necessary that municipalities and nonprofit organizations work hand in hand."

The international experts who recommended adapting the existing practice in the Czech Republic were contributing to a conference on "Inspiration for Social Housing and Addressing Homelessness" convend by the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion and the Platform for Social Housing. Functional solutions were presented at the conference by domestic and international experts and the "European Housing First Handbook" was introduced, the first publication of its kind in the Czech language dedicated to the methods of the very most efficent approach to ending homelessness (on which the Finnish approach is based), one that is more than 80 % functional for those most endangered while also bringing big financial savings to the countries where it has been applied.

"Cities and the state administration can, practically immediately, reduce the numbers of homeless people significantly. The public administration has acqured all of the arguments and evidence it needs to understand that the solution to homelessness is to create apartment units with support work attached to them. We find ourselves faced with an opportunity that will not repeat itself - in the EU funds there are CZK 2 billion [EUR 78.5 million] left and the Czech Republic has pledged to end the homelessness of the 6 000 households with minors in the residential hotels by 2020. Thanks to the knowledge of the experts and the pilot projects in the Czech Republic, we know how to do this, it just depends on the will of the politicians to uphold what was approved by the past Government. There is no reason to wait," the Platform for Social Housing chair Štěpán Ripka said on opening the conference.

press release of the Platform for Social Housing (Platforma pro sociální bydlení, z. s.), translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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