Every night, technical teams from various charities roam the city’s streets in search of the homeless. Their goals: to extend a helping hand, listen to their stories and help them find new paths in life.
We followed the Comunidade Vida e Paz (Life and Peace Community) team whose efforts were not halted by the pandemic. Quite the opposite, as needs are now more pressing than ever.
A senior social service technician at Comunidade Vida e Paz, Joana Viana (28) has worked for about 3 years as part of a team that tirelessly walks every street, every alley, every corner of the city, searching for the homeless and offering them a kind word. Some ask for help; others prefer to be alone. ‘We try to understand their situation, why they are there, and seek to find answers and solutions to each case.’
Joana explains that most of the people they meet have been homeless for years, which makes it more difficult to build trust. Teams need to understand why these people are on the streets, provide them with regular psychological and social support, and seek to find out what they really need.
‘We’re talking about housing solutions such as “housing first”; several field teams that talk to the homeless on a daily basis; and employment solutions such as “It’s a restaurant” or “Open Door to First Employment”, a very recent project. I can give you another example: our Local Support Centres, where people can eat their meals with dignity, sitting at a table, instead of eating on the streets. It’s on these occasions that we manage to work with the homeless in a different way and get many answers, from all sorts of people. The council has invested strongly in this area in the last few years,’ explains Paulo Santos, coordinator of the project team created as part of the Municipal Plan for the Homeless 2019-2023 (EPPMPSSA).
‘Three weeks ago, we helped a youngster who’d been homeless for a few days; it took us about three weeks to find him a shelter. It’s very rewarding to be able to help someone who only two years ago was studying Agronomy at University of Beja just to end up sleeping rough. We’ll continue to work on this case, not only to ensure he stays off the streets, but also to help him find his way into a brighter future and a dignified, happy life.’
Alfredo Martins, Comunidade Vida e Paz
Five technical street teams currently work in four large areas of the city, where they provide psychological, social and medical support. These partner teams, all of which are subsidised by the Lisbon City Council, include CRESCER – Associação de Intervenção Comunitária (TO GROW – Association for Community Intervention); Comunidade Vida e Paz (Life and Peace Community); AVA - Associação Vida Autónoma (Association for Independent Life); VITAE – Associação de Solidariedade e Desenvolvimento Internacional (International Association for Solidarity and Development); and Associação Médicos do Mundo (Doctors of the World), which offers basic healthcare across the entire city.
Created about 8 years ago, Housing First is a project whose goals are to find suitable housing, mostly individual, for homeless people. The latter receive the support of technicians who help them manage a home, in order to facilitate social integration. ‘People are firstly given a home and monitored by a qualified team, on a weekly basis. This will help the team build trust with the people they’re assisting and start working on other areas. This project has been very successful with people who’d been on the streets for 10, 15 or even longer, people who aren’t receptive to standard approaches. These people have responded very well to the Housing First model,’ explains Paulo Santos. ‘I’ll give you a practical example. When the Comunidade Vida e Paz team, with which we cooperate, meets someone they believe would be a suitable candidate for the Housing First project, they forward the case to the team that manages this programme. This team then schedules an interview with the person in question, conducts an assessment and integrates them in the project.’
Over the first year of the municipal plan, the council invested over 4 million euros, most of which were allocated to housing programmes such as Housing First.
The municipal plan for the homeless currently includes 340 homes in Lisbon. The Housing First programme offered 80 housing opportunities upon its launch and a further 100 homes in April 2020, when the pandemic started; an additional 160 housing opportunities were created in September.
Four of the entities involved are subsidised by the Lisbon City Council, which is responsible for the Housing First project: AEIPS - Associação para o Estudo e Integração Psicossocial (Association for Psychological and Social Studies and Integration); CRESCER - Associação de Intervenção Comunitária; (TO GROW – Association for Community Intervention); GAT - Grupo de Ativistas em Tratamentos (Group of Activists for Treatment); and VITAE – Associação de Solidariedade e Desenvolvimento Internacional (International Association for Solidarity and Development).
The NPISA - Núcleo de Planeamento de Intervenção para a Pessoa em Situação de Sem-Abrigo (Emergency Planning Centre for the Homeless) is responsible for coordinating food distribution across the city. This organisation is composed of about 30 partners whose efforts are coordinated to ensure suitable responses. ‘They are then joined by other entities, which generously come to the city to help, but which aren’t part of the network,’ explains Paulo Santos, adding that the NPISA’s work ‘involves many people and is very complex. Sometimes they don’t know when food will be distributed; the partners involved need to ensure efficient cooperation in order to guarantee an effective response and provide food to the people who actually need it.’
Created in 2015 by the Lisbon social network, the NPISA is a commission that includes three entities, namely the Lisbon City Council, charitable organisation Santa Casa de Misericórdia (Holy House of Mercy) and the Social Security Institute. The NPISA’s goal is to address the needs of the homeless through effective monitoring and cooperation, such as to ensure that the resources of each entity are put to the best use.
Several day centres provide help and support to the homeless during the daytime. The EPPMPSSA team coordinator, Paulo Santos, explains that emergency centres offer overnight accommodation, but no services during the daytime, which is why day centres were created. ‘They’re places where people can watch films or television, participate in debates, listen to stories or simply sit on the sofa and chat, as well as eat breakfast quietly or let someone help them find a job.
These centres have great potential, as they take people off the streets and help them socialise and build bonds with others.’
Five day centres are currently subsidised by the Lisbon City Council: Ateliers de Mudança (Serve The City), COID Exército de Salvação (Salvation Army Social Centre), Espaço Aberto ao Diálogo (Life and Peace Community), Espaço Âncora (Growing Well) and Projeto Orientar (ORIENTAR – Interventive Association for Change).
Faced with the current emergency, the city council felt the need to create specific solutions, adjusted to the context created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Four emergency shelters were opened in Lisbon, in March 2020. Up to the present date, these facilities have provided temporary accommodation to almost 800 people, most of whom have been offered a place in one of the city’s permanent shelters, each of which can house up to 220 people. Hundreds of people were taken off the streets or found immediate shelter after losing their income.
‘We’d mostly worked with shelters where the homeless are housed for two or three days during cold spells. These places are different. The council has created municipal emergency shelters, which will continue operating while the pandemic lasts, so that people don’t have to live on the streets. These shelters also offer psychological and social support, food, showers and basic healthcare, in accordance with the guidelines issued by the Directorate-General for Health, such as to avoid contagion,’ explains Paulo Santos. This is an integrated intervention strategy that seeks to promote social support and combat poverty and social exclusion, relying on the wide social support network currently in place.
‘In terms of municipal response, our main goal is to ensure that sufficient solutions are in place, as diversified as possible, so that people may seek them when they feel able or ready to reach out to us.’
Paulo Santos, PMPSSA coordinator
‘A few years ago, I met a youngster in Bairro Alto with whom I’ve been working over the years. He not only got off the streets, but also managed to get into university and finish a degree in design. I watched him build a future and completely turn his life around. It’s always very motivating to witness such changes.’
Alfredo Martins, Life and Peace Community
Text: Mafalda Ferraz
Photography: Manuel Rodrigues Levita, Luís Filipe Catarino
Video: Nuno Loureiro and Nuno Morais
More information available on www.lisboa.pt/cidade/direitos-sociais/acao-social/pessoas-em-situacao-de-sem-abrigo