Image by Jan Mihalicek/Euro. Used with permission.

After pilot testing in two cities, the Housing First concept is being taken up in towns around the Czech Republic, offering stable housing for those in need.

Earlier this year, Lucie, her partner, and young son found a new home in a pedestrian zone in Jihlava. After life in overpriced hostels, it was like a dream come true. “I got married and moved to Prague, then I got divorced and at the same time my parents died,” she says. “I still had permanent residence in Prague, so I lost the right to my parents’ apartment. My son and I went from hostel to hostel.”

Lucie (she asked to keep her identity private because she fears negative reactions from the public) tried to work in the hostels. Her last such gig was housekeeping and laundry, although she studied nursing. “The hostel completely overwhelmed me,” she recalls. “When you see those life situations all around you, it automatically drags you down. I’ll be blunt: I started drinking.”

Hundreds of others are in a similar situation in Jihlava, a city of about 50,000 in the south-central part of the Czech Republic. But helping them take charge of their lives might be easier than one might think: offer them an apartment. A city-owned apartment, for which they regularly pay rent. And when they stabilize their mental and physical health, they can start looking for work.

Lucie was lucky. She’s no longer in danger of being thrown out onto the street. Jihlava City Hall drew her name as one of 12 households in the Housing First pilot project late last year. Lucie first entered her apartment building, near Jihlava’s main square, on 1 March this year. At first glance it appears neglected, but inside it’s neat and orderly: No trash; no kicked-in doors or broken glass.

A Higher Level

“When we came here, the apartment was in perfect condition,” Lucie praises her new home. But there was nothing inside except the kitchen cabinets, stove, and water heater. Social workers from the local branch of Charita, a partner in the Housing First project in the Vysocina region of which Jihlava is the administrative center, helped Lucie and her family find furniture. “We had something to build on, even if we started again from scratch,” Lucie says. In her last boarding house, she paid 14,000 crowns ($625) for two rooms; the city-owned apartment will come to 9,000 crowns, all in – at the low end for rents in the city center. Her lease is for a year; the boarding house was month to month.

“My partner has already found a permanent job, and I’m going for an interview next week,” she says. “We’ve made a lot of progress; we’re already at a higher level.” Her son has been getting better grades; here he can study in his own room. And he gets sick much less often. The family gets along with the neighbors.

“In the beginning, it’s important that people settle in, feel at home, and not just see it as another temporary accommodation,” says Pavlina Kolarova, a social worker from Charita. “Only then can they start progressing and work on employment, for example.” She gets together with clients at least once a week, helping them acclimate, find furniture, and look for work.

“People often judge others based on first impressions, but everyone lives in some kind of social bubble. It’s good to realize that the individual isn’t always to blame,” she says.

Housing First was developed in the 1990s by Canadian community psychologist Sam Tsemberis in New York. It soon proved to be a very successful form of combating homelessness among people with a high need for social assistance. Providing housing is the primary goal, hence the name “Housing First.” Another focus is improving people’s health. This is a big difference from Housing Ready services that try to prepare homeless people to move into their own housing before letting them take that step. To date, EU-supported Housing First projects in Czechia have found housing for about 400 people in more than 200 municipal-owned and private apartments in 16 cities.

Luck of the Draw

The project in Jihlava and a dozen other cities began at the end of 2019 thanks to subsidies for social services funded by European Union money and distributed by the Ministry for Regional Development. Prague began a separate Housing First trial in 2020 without tapping into EU subsidies. The ministry decided to invest in the project based on four years of results from Housing First in Brno, the country’s second-largest city. There the ministry noted “significant improvement in the stability and quality of housing, family health, social integration of families, and prevention of institutionalization of children.”

Jihlava, troubled for some time by a large number of people without permanent housing, received about 4 million crowns for testing the Housing First concept for two years. The city covers 5 percent of that – about 200,000 crowns. City officials in 2019 conducted an initial survey of potential locations with homeless and housing-insecure people. “We went around pre-selected places, hostels, apartments, asylum houses, and filled in short questionnaires with families and individuals, which helped us assess their housing situation,” says Daniel Skarka, city councilor for housing.

A total of 253 households met the criteria for inclusion in the project. The households were then divided into groups so their size corresponded with the size of available apartments. Then, with the participation of a notary, the lottery picked the candidates. The number of vacant city apartments was not enough to meet demand, and in the end, only 10 families and two individuals were selected for the pilot. The town hall spread them out throughout the city, so they would not end up in the same buildings if possible. The first household received its apartment in January 2020 and the last moved in last summer.

“We realized that the Housing First principles will be unfamiliar to most politicians, as well as experts in Jihlava,” Skarka says. “That’s why we informed representatives from the beginning and attended seminars with the staff from the social affairs department.” But Skarka wasn’t able to fully dispel their concerns. The criticism often stems from uncertainty. “That’s why we have to try out these things and learn together, even with occasional minor failures,” he says. The project will be evaluated after two years, in cooperation with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and the Platform for Social Housing, an umbrella group of non-profits and experts, which helped set up the program in Jihlava. “If the evaluation is positive, the Housing First approach will be included in the social housing system as one of the forms of support for families lacking adequate housing in Jihlava,” Skarka says.

Some preliminary results are already in. Now that they have settled into their homes, some of the Jihlava households have begun to address other issues, such as debt repayment, unemployment, and health concerns. Social workers also observe a positive impact on relationships with extended family and with public servants. City Hall hasn’t registered any instances of unpaid rent.

Complaints from neighbors have occurred about one larger family. Officials from the social services and housing departments are addressing the concerns, and social workers are working with the family. Local opposition politicians who lack confidence in the project often cite problematic coexistence with other households. “I have reservations about it,” says Magdalena Skorepova, a member of the city’s social services commission. “I would rather give starter apartments to young families or support single mothers. These problematic families, from whom it’s then hard to extract rent, are difficult to socialize.”

Insufficient knowledge about Housing First often persists among officials and politicians, along with stereotypes about its target group. “This group of people doesn’t want to work for the most part, and we won’t get them to work by giving them housing and starting to take care of them even more,” says Radek Popelka, another Jihlava opposition politician. He believes that rather than helping those in need, the project benefits nonprofits, “which make a very good living because of it.”

Better Health and Less Expensive Care

Lack of understanding of the concept often goes hand in hand with weak political support. “Every few years we have local elections,” says Vit Lesak, director of the Platform for Social Housing. “Even in places where the project is under way, such as four years ago in Brno, the opposition will eventually make an issue of it and want to disrupt it.”

The Brno project, housing 50 families and 65 individuals, was significantly curtailed after the conservative Civic Democratic Party took over city leadership, Lesak notes. Among families and individuals in Brno, 96 percent of households managed to keep their apartment after the first year and 80 percent after the second year. According to a University of Ostrava study comparing housed families in Brno with similar families who didn’t get an apartment, the Housing First families significantly improved their health and, because some children didn’t have to be placed in costly institutional care, saved more than 1.5 million crowns ($67,000) in public funds over a year.

On the other hand, after the first year, half of the families owed money for rent. A special city fund partly covered the rent payments so the families were able to keep their apartments and manage the shortfalls. The poverty of some families has proved to be a major limitation. It turned out that many of them needed more support than Housing First could give, says Eliska Cerna, a University of Ostrava researcher who compiled the Housing First data in Brno.

“A family that lives in a hostel, for example, and then takes part in Housing First needs time to adapt,” Cerna says. “A year is not enough; it’s just enough time to get the lay of the land, but in a lot of cities there were too many demands on a family after a year. Typically, the children needed supplies with the start of the school year, so families found themselves on the edge; they got into debt.”The city reacted by setting up a crisis fund, so that if a family found itself in unexpected financial distress that threatened their ability to pay rent, they could request a one-off payment. This helped some families to overcome the critical first year and continue living in their homes.

Brno City Hall received about 30 complaints about coexistence with neighbors during the first 18 months of the program, which remains Housing First’s biggest problem when it comes to families. Experts say it’s important to explain the principles of the project to the neighborhood ahead of time, as many complaints arise before and shortly after homeless families move in. And the employment status of adults among the Housing First families in Brno hasn’t changed much, but according to the University of Ostrava study, this may be due at least in part to the fact that almost half of the women were on parental leave.

The project achieved more encouraging results with its individual participants. A year after settling in, three quarters of them had kept up with rent payments; after a year and a half, there had been 12 complaints about the 65 individual tenants. Because of difficulty in housing families with children, some Brno social workers would prefer a “housing ready” approach – offering them a city-owned apartment only after their situation stabilizes.

A Nameplate on the Door

In other countries, Housing First mostly serves individuals. Families were included in the Czech projects because the country has a large number of families without permanent homes. The main cause is legally mandated seizure of goods to pay debts. Successful examples from abroad can therefore be better applied to working with individuals. In Finland, for example, Housing First has cut the number of homeless people in half since 1987, to about 7,000. In comparison, Ostrava alone has about 3,000 homeless. The low number of Finns living on the streets is, among other things, the result of the work of the Y-Foundation, which today manages almost 17,000 apartments throughout Finland.

“It’s not just about giving those people an apartment, but above all to give them support so they can keep the apartment,” says Finnish Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo, who previously worked at the Y-Foundation. It starts with little things, such as a nameplate on their door. Y-Foundation believes that if homeless people get as close to normal life as possible, they will eventually understand that living in an apartment is better than just surviving on the street or in hostels. “We explain to them that they have more freedom in an apartment,” Ohisalo adds. “They have somewhere to come back to, so they’re not hostage to having to decide where to sleep today.” 

Experts agree that more testing of a larger sample of households and for a longer period of time is needed before the relative success of Housing First for individuals and families in Czechia can be evaluated. The current expansion of the conceptto 16 cities could yield results in a few years, although they say it is too early to decide which lessons from the Brno and Jihlava trials can be applied elsewhere.

An insufficient supply of municipal-owned apartments continues to be a major limitation. This is one reason most of these 16 cities also work with private landlords, to whom they guarantee payment of rent. For the private sector, this means reliable and long-term rental income. For people like Lucie it means a greater chance of returning to a normal life. “I’m glad that our city won’t write off everyone, that they gave us a chance,” she says in the living room of her apartment in Jihlava.

Jan Novotny came to the business weekly Euro in 2015 after working at the largest serious Czech daily, Mlada fronta Dnes. He has covered a number of high-profile corruption and political stories. Barbora Doubravova contributed reporting.

This article first appeared in Euro and was produced within a Transitions project to support solutions journalism in our coverage region.

Translated by Dasa Obereigner.