How the Housing First model is being adapted in Catalonia and the rest of Europe

Defending housing as a human right and helping people to have and maintain a home of their own. These are the basic objectives of the Housing First model, which saw its beginnings in a programme to remediate homelessness created in the 1990s in New York. Since then, the model has been adopted in different parts of Europe, adapted to each country’s local realities. The following article examines how this is happening, with a final focus on Catalonia.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the US organization Pathways Housing First Institut launched Housing First, a support model to remediate homelessness. The model prioritized access to safe and stable housing without requiring users to first commit to sobriety or comply with psychological treatment, and amongst other things it also offered users a care plan that was not time-limited. Essentially, the idea was to establish an alternative to the traditional staircase model of care for homeless people, which was proving to be slow-moving, costly and exclusive.

Since its beginnings, the Housing First model has been adopted by many other countries in different parts of the world, including Europe. In each country, however, its implementation is conditioned by two basic factors, as explained by Nicholas Pleace, director of the University of York’s Centre for Housing Policy and member of FEANTSA’s European Observatoy on Homelessness. First, as he points out, “it can’t be exactly the same in Italy as it is in France or Finland because the policy context is too different”; then, there is also the question of how much social housing each country actually has.

In fact, Pleace suggests, in most European countries the problem of homelessness is still tackled using emergency resources and night shelter facilities, which he attributes to the fact that Housing First models are still not strategically integrated into national plans to address homelessness. There are exceptions like Finland, where government agencies and associations operate inside a shared framework and therefore acquire a more cross-disciplinary perspective. But in France, where the Housing First model is highly developed, the country’s serious problems with expenditure on temporary accommodation make implementing the service a major challenge; and in Germany, although Housing First is present in cities like Berlin, reliance on short-term financing means that the long-term aspects of the model and the continuity of the housing programmes it supports cannot be guaranteed.

“Housing First is ultimately reliant on all kinds of partnerships if it’s going to work”, says Pleace. “You want to have a homeless system where the hospital can say ‘We’ve got this person coming in and we want to refer them to Housing First’. You need to have the same thing if you want the police to be able to say ‘This person needs Housing First”‘. And finally, he pinpoints one of the most important challenges: “It’s quite difficult for us to internalize the idea that homelessness isn’t the fault of the person who’s experiencing it”, he says. “That was a big obstacle when Housing First was being introduced in the US; it continues to be an obstacle now.”


The big picture from local perspectives

Finland provides one of the best examples of how the Housing First model has been implemented in Europe. “Housing First is our mainstream policy,” says Saija Turunen, head of research at the Y-Foundation. “You don’t need to prove that you are housing-ready so we don’t really do the staircase model any more. And instead of managing homelessness, looking for something temporary, we have moved to more long-term solutions.” These include the provision scattered-site housing or small, supported housing units rather than night shelters or other temporary resources, and the presence of housing advisors who can help avoid situations of conflict and coordinate the work with municipal and central government authorities.

Finland’s national strategy for addressing homelessness first adopted the Housing First model in 2008, and it continues to make progress: in 1985, its homeless numbered 20,000; in 2023, that figure had fallen to 3,429. Over the years, the Finns have applied no less than five national plans to combat homelessness: the first and second focused on long-term homelessness, the third prioritized prevention, the fourth concentrated on strengthening municipal care structures and the fifth has returned to the issue of long-term homelessness.

Responsibility for implementing these plans has traditionally been shared between the government and the social agencies that work to secure stable social housing. The Y-Foundation is one of the biggest of these, managing some 90,000 apartments across 60 towns and cities. “The State has played a big part in building the rental houses,” says Turunen. “We get interest subsidies from the State, then we get loans from the bank; but of course we also have some rental income”. Some of the funding also comes from the state’s national lottery.

Ireland is another country where the Housing First model has been broadly implemented. Since its adoption in 2011, originally through a collaboration between Dublin City Council, the city’s statutory body for tackling homelessness and a number of NGOs, the model has expanded to form part of state policy. According to Rob Lowth, national director of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage’s Housing First National Office the key to its success was its inclusion in the government’s 2016 action plan on housing and homelessness, ‘Rebuilding Ireland’. “Today we have about 1,000 tenancies around Ireland,” Lowth said. “While roughly 50% of these tenancies are in Dublin, the remainder are in the other larger cities and towns — and many in rural communities that would never have thought of a homeless solution being in their town or village.” In terms of the implementation plans, Lowth highlights the initiatives to involve prisons in referral systems for possible Housing First tenants, the work to maintain rural engagement in the model and the activities to coordinate actions with the Ministry of Health and community-sector organizations in the field. “Ireland is firmly an adopter of the Pathways to Housing model,” he concludes, referring back to the original American programme.  “But at the same time, we all as countries and unique entities have to adapt and localize systems such as Housing First. […] Sometimes we need to have local workarounds for local problems.”


Housing First in Catalonia

What we need most to address the goals of ending and preventing homelessness is a common legal framework that can define and determine the policies and resources to be deployed across Catalonia. In the meantime, a number of community-sector organizations are attempting to work along the lines established in the Housing First model, and in our own case this work goes back to 2012 (see the page Com treballem el model Housing First a Arrels). At the time of writing, Arrels manages a total of 152 mainly privately-owned but also publicly-owned homes classified as government-protected housing in the national social housing plan, allowing us to offer a safe and stable home and care plan to many people experiencing homelessness.

Barcelona City Council has also adopted the Housing First model. Starting in 2015, in a first phase it managed a total of 50 homes for single people with a history of long-term homelessness and has currently increased that number to 86. “Our users are tenants in every sense of the word,” said Carme Fortea, director of the Council’s Homelessness Assistance Services (Serveis d’Atenció al Sensellarisme). “They rent their flat or apartment in their own name, so essentially we’ve been able to separate the social care part of the equation from the delivery of housing.”

Higher up, in 2018 a governmental agreement was approved to create an action plan to address the problem of homelessness in Catalonia, which is now being implemented in the form of the document Marc d’Acció per a l’Abordatge del Sensellarisme. The plan affirms that having a home is a necessary condition for human dignity and, as explained by Mireia Vall, general director of Social Services at the Government of Catalonia’s Ministry of Social Rights, it is being used to design a care protocol for people experiencing homelessness. The Catalan government is also currently providing 48 different municipalities with financial support to generate housing opportunities and ensure the presence of a statutory body dedicated to addressing homelessness, Vall also said.

There is still much to do, however, and many challenges remain for both the government and community-sector organizations. We need to scale up policies promoting social housing and bring the private market into the equation, ensuring that private partners offer affordable rental prices to at-risk tenants. In the case of people experiencing homelessness, the municipalities also need to comply with the law that makes it a both a right and an obligation for all city and town dwellers to be inscribed in their municipality’s citizens’ register (the Llei d’empadronament), with all the basic rights that go with this inscription.

At Arrels, we also want to see the creation of a Catalan-specific model for deploying Housing First in the form of a statutory body whose remit is to regulate and oversee the rollout of the service in Catalonia. “This needs to be organized in the form of an agreement that can eventually lead us to having our own independent legislation on homelessness”, said Arrels director Ferran Busquets.

The Irish community-sector organization Sophia is currently leading the project Adapting Housing First – Innovating Housing Staff, which sets out to identify how Housing First has been implemented in different European contexts and provides training opportunities for people working in the service. Finland’s Y-Foundation, Germany’s Berliner Stadt Mission and Neue Chance, and Arrels are also participating in the project.


Further information:

  • Watch the complete talks on implementing Housing First by Nicholas Pleace, Saija Turunen and Rob Lowth.
  • Click here to read the Y-Foundation’s book “A Home of Your Own: Housing First and ending homelessness in Finland”.

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