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Oslo interview: “The real challenge is not finding innovative models, it is about changing our politics and values”

From 9 to 10 October EASPD will hold the annual conference "A Home For All" on Housing and Services for People with Support Needs, in Oslo. The conference will be attended by international speakers, which will provide a perspective from outside Europe of this sector’s progression in the wider world.  Sam Tsemberis, from the United States, will open the second day of the international conference, delivering a key note speech on the revolutionary “Housing First” program. In the build up to the conference we have asked him some questions about the model he founded, and his view of the European sector:


Mr. Tsemberis, could you briefly describe the Pathways to Housing initiative? How has this programme been implemented in the United States, and what are the major challenges you have encountered with this initiative?

Pathways to Housing Inc., is the name of the agency I founded to develop the “Housing First” program.  This program helps individuals who are homeless and have complex problems such as mental illness, addiction, health as well unemployment and poverty.

The program is based on the principle that housing is a basic human right.  People, especially those with severe challenges, should not have to prove they deserve or are ready for housing.  Program participants are immediately offered a home of their own and the support services they need to succeed in their new home. The program uses a philosophy known as ‘client choice’ to provide housing and services and it has proven remarkably effective: ending homelessness and achieving housing stability for 85% of program participants.  

It has been replicated across the United States, Canada and increasingly in the EU and Australia.  The major challenges encountered in implementing this program fall into two major categories; problems with some providers and politicians accepting the program’s values and developing the political will to bring the program to scale so we can in fact end homelessness.


In your opinion, how competent is the social housing sector in Europe?  What differences and similarities do you find with the American system?

What I think is commendable about social housing is that there are many EU countries that are still invested in supporting the development of subsidized and affordable – social -- housing.  This is vital in today’s economy where market rents are too often out of reach of those employed in minimum wage jobs.  

What I have also observed is that social housing is sometimes offered as a reward for good behaviour or compliance with house rules.  In these instances the residents of social housing are held to a higher standard of responsibility and behaviour than the residents of private market housing.  

Social housing, even where it exists is mostly filled and overfilled to capacity.  In most places, people are kept on waiting lists for years and there are thousands of applicants; essentially there is only social housing for those who are already in it but it is not really an option for today’s homeless or others in desperate need of housing today. 
In America there are only minimal government resources allocated to provide rental support or to finance the construction of affordable housing.  (Nobody calls it social housing in America.  The word social is a root word for socialism, which is considered illegal by many elected officials in the US.)   The number of units of affordable housing being built both in the US (EU, Canada and elsewhere) is nowhere near the number of people who need it.  Once a new affordable housing project is completed the tenants selected must meet very high standards.  In this way, the extremely demand and very short supply and with the higher tenancy requirements the affordable housing situation in the US resembles the social housing programs in the EU.


Given the difficult economic situation in Europe there are funding problems especially when it comes to the social sector. Do you know of any innovative funding models that could help to overcome this financial gap?

There are many economic and funding models that are reasonable, cost-effective and can effectively end homelessness in the EU, the USA and Canada.  Most of them are not being implemented on a scale that would end and prevent homelessness.  The real challenge is not finding innovative models it is about changing our politics and values. It is about changing the societal values and economic policies that effect income disparity and how we help those who are less fortunate.

Registration and practical information on the annual conference "A Home For All"