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The housing situation of persons granted international protection and persons under the asylum procedure - NIEM/V4NIEM National Coalition meeting

On Thursday April 22, 2021, a thematic National Coalition meeting within the National Integration Evaluation Mechanism (NIEM) and V4NIEM project was held, and it was devoted to the issue of housing support for people with refugee experience in Poland.

The aim of the meeting was to search for effective initiatives, and exchange experiences and practices related to the improvement of the housing situation of asylum-seekers and refugees. The meeting was attended by representatives of non-governmental organizations implementing housing assistance programs, representatives of local governments from various parts of the country, as well as members of the Refugee Council operating within the project.

The first part of the meeting introduced the goals and key issues of the project, then Filip Pazderski, NIEM field researcher, presented the results of research in Poland and comparative analyses from the pan-European research in the field of housing. Recommendations of the Refugee Council on activities aimed at improving the housing situation of people with refugee experience were also presented. The main part of the meeting was divided into two sessions: non-governmental and local administrative, including a discussion. During the first part, the perspective of non-governmental organizations in terms of housing assistance programs was presented. In the next session the perspective of local governments was presented in terms of specific solutions implemented to improve the housing situation of people with international protection and people under the asylum procedure using non-central services, as well as further local government plans and municipal policies on housing policy.

The key issue during the NGO session was to present the spectrum of housing aid initiatives implemented by leading organizations over the past few years. Piotr Bystrianin (Ocalenie Foundation) presented the project "Welcome home", Natalia Borysławska (Fundacja Ocalenie) the project "Refugees Welcome Poland", Beata Patuszyńska (Habitat for Humanity) presented the idea of the Social Rental Agency (Społeczna Agencja Najmu) in the context of the group of beneficiaries of international protection, while Nina Mocior from The Foundation for Somalia (Fundacja dla Somalii) shared the details of the housing support project directed to forced migrants in need after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Aleksandra Chrzanowska from the Association for Legal Intervention (Stowarzyszenie Interwencji Prawnej) presented the experiences and conclusions that came from the activities related to writing-up the report on the monitoring of housing conditions of people with international protection in Poland, carried out in 2014, which is still the only document of this type. A wide spectrum of selected projects and activities - from those aimed at vulnerable groups in which people with refugee experience are part of the target group, to those targeted only at people with international protection - indicates the versatility of the measures taken and serves as a valuable source of good practices resulting from the already existing housing assistance programs.

Non-governmental session - Projects
One of the leading housing and integration support programs by NGOs in Poland is "Welcome home", run by the Ocalenie Foundation. Due to the fact that the threat of homelessness is one of the key obstacles to the social integration of people with refugee experience, the main method of assistance planned within the Welcome Home project is housing support that consists of providing help in finding a flat for rent as well as of subsidies to rentals. By taking part in the program, participants agree to use the professional support of the Foundation, the main goal of which is to obtain further independence by the participants.
Another housing support project, presented during the meeting by its coordinator Natalia Borysławska (Ocalenie Foundation), was the "Refugees Welcome Poland" project. As part of the program, refugees are joined with Polish hosts who decide to share their home. Furthermore, program participants receive individual support from volunteers who help them adapt to new city and space. The Foundation also organizes regular integration meetings for all program participants: refugees, hosts, and volunteers. The program runs only in Warsaw and its close vicinity, due to the location of the Foundation and thus the limited scope of providing the necessary, comprehensive support to program participants on site. Most of the project funding comes from the income gathered during the annual Refugees Welcome Charity Art Auction, as well as from the individual donations.

Later on, Beata Patuszyńska, the Manager of the Social Rental Agency (SAN) operating within the Habitat for Humanity Poland Foundation, presented the principles and criteria governing the program in the context of supporting people with refugee experience in Poland. The not-for-profit Social Rental Agency (SAN) acts as an intermediary in renting apartments between owners and tenants, and its activities are aimed at improving access to affordable housing for various groups of recipients who are not able to deal with the cost of lease. SAN provides apartment owners with an efficient and safe rental process, while social tenancy specialists play a key role in its activities, maintaining direct, individual contact with each client and taking care of the apartments. The agency is looking for vacant apartments or rooms that are not rented for various reasons (need for renovation, owners' fear of a dishonest tenant or devastation of the apartment). The Foundation can prepare an apartment for rent (e.g. it can fully furnish, refresh or renovate it). It also provides assistance in tenants’ recruitment and, if necessary, guarantees regular rent payments and takes care of the apartment.

As a response to growing emergency situation unfolding in 2020, the Foundation for Somalia in cooperation with the Polish Hospitality Foundation as part of UNHCR funding, organized a project targeting the forced migrants who found themselves in crisis due to the pandemic. The project consisted of two parts: 1) housing support component - financial support for housing expenses for foreigners with confirmed statuses (refugees, subsidiary protection and humanitarian), experiencing a difficult life situation in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic - implemented by the Foundation for Somalia; 2) Support in getting out of the crisis - developing a social plan aimed at getting the family / person out of the crisis. The program included learning Polish, assistance in finding a job, social support, psychological help and other elements adapted to the individual situation of the family, implemented by the Polish Hospitality Foundation. The project coordinator on the part of the FFS emphasized that it was a program of emergency housing support in the face of difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, addressed only to persons granted international protection in Poland, excluding persons remaining in the asylum procedure. Despite the fact that all persons falling under these criteria have the right to receive state aid, the need for this type of emergency aid remains high. Due to the prevailing dire conditions and the isolated locations of refugee centers, many people prefer to live outside the center, while state financial aid for people using assistance outside the centers is not adapted to the realities of the real estate market, being definitely insufficient, especially in crisis situations, such as loss of work, unemployment, or illness. Based on these assumptions, an additional "sensitivity" criterion was applied as part of the recruitment process, including families with many children, the elderly, people struggling with diseases and single parents.

As the final presentation of the NGO session, Aleksandra Chrzanowska from the Association for Legal Intervention (SIP) presented the leading idea and results of the "Report on the monitoring of refugee housing conditions in Poland" conducted in 2014. The main aim of the report was to check the conditions in which forced migrants live, especially taking into account the fact that such research on the standards of housing occupied by refugees had not taken place before. The researchers considered two groups: people applying for international protection and benefiting from the so-called “out-of-center” benefits granted by the Department of Social Assistance of the Office for Foreigners, and people with the right to stay in Poland who rent apartments on the private market or from municipal resources. It was shown that the study group widely lacked any stability of residence (resulting, for example, from reluctance to check-in tenants, sign a contract, or increasing rental costs), the conditions of refugees’ residences were frequently in very poor conditions (below generally accepted standards), and there was a need for frequent and unwanted relocations. Through analysing the results of the report prepared by SIP, one can easily see why people with refugee experience have great difficulties with integration in Poland, treating it as a temporary place and often choosing a further journey towards stabilization in other EU countries.

The projects and activities presented during the non-governmental session illustrate the variety of implemented solutions in the field of housing assistance offered by the non-governmental sector. They are distinguished by high flexibility of activities that are subject to regular evaluation and adapted to the group of people with different needs. There is a great need for comprehensive long-term projects such as aforementioned "Welcome Home", but there is also a significant need for introducing some ad hoc measures that respond to the needs of people particularly vulnerable to the homelessness crisis, such as the Foundation for Somalia project. Nevertheless, housing support offered by the non-governmental sector has its serious limitations, especially in terms of the sustainability of financing long-term projects and the question of the scope of assistance. The number of people interested in participating in such projects significantly exceeds the scope of assistance provided for within them, while some basic criteria for participation set by the organizers are unavailable for people with refugee experience.

Local administration session
Starting the local government part with a discussion, Joanna Krupadziorow from the Department of Social Development in Gdańsk presented the Immigrant Integration Model, a housing support program for people with international protection and other immigrants and immigrants, conducted in Gdańsk. The program consists of the transfer of two council flats on an annual basis with support for refugees, persons granted subsidiary protection, and persons undergoing the asylum procedure – essentially offering assisted flats for migrants in crisis. The Immigrant Integration Model (IIM), adopted by the City Council in 2016, is both an urban policy that addresses the growing community of immigrants in Gdańsk, as well as a local migration and integration management tool. The aim of the Model is, on the one hand, to strengthen the independence of immigrants by providing them with information and knowledge necessary for sound functioning in Gdańsk. On the other hand, it aims at preparing institutions, whose clients are often immigrants, to provide them with services on an equal basis with the residents of Gdańsk. The IIM is the first strategy of this type in Poland at the local government level, which was created as a result of cooperation between the city authorities, non-governmental organizations, public institutions, private entities, and the immigrant community. Some of the tasks defined in the IIM, especially the basic ones in the field of mediation and support in renting apartments on the private market, support for people in the asylum procedure or immigrants at risk of homelessness in extreme poverty and exclusion for example, were provided by the city of Gdańsk through a competition for non-governmental organizations. Some of these services are performed on the basis of a contract lasting several years.

A separate activity that people with refugee experience can also take advantage of is the Gdańsk Social Housing Program. This aims at developing social housing combined with various forms of specialist support. One of the main ideas of the Program is to integrate solutions in the area of housing policy with solutions in the area of social assistance, as well as integration towards de-institutionalization and individual support for people at risk of social exclusion. The evaluation of the presented project shows a significant need to expand cooperation with non-governmental organizations offering support tailored to the diverse needs of recipients, in order to better recognize and respond to difficulties in the development of family integration. One of the key obstacles to the potential development of the project that has been identified is the limited stock of apartments ready to be provided by the community, with the number of applications far exceeding the capacity of supply.

Furthermore, presenting a rather less structurally organized perspective, Dominik Wach from the Warsaw Family Assistance Center (WCPR) emphasized that as part of the obligations towards persons implementing the Individual Integration Program in Warsaw, WCPR provides assistance in obtaining accommodation, including, in a protected apartment if possible. An additional form of support offered is the so-called WCPR housing competition, under which the WCPR is entitled to apply for the decision of a rental agreement from the city's housing resources for people with refugee status or subsidiary protection. The maximum number of applications that WCPR can submit is 5 applications per year. Warsaw is one of the few cities in Poland offering access to sheltered housing for people with international protection.

As part of the implemented tasks, it is planned to provide assistance in the form of a stay in a sheltered apartment for foreigners who have received refugee status or subsidiary protection. Implementing IIP in Warsaw, WCPR currently has 4 sheltered flats to offer annually. The period of stay in a protected apartment may not, however, exceed 12 months. Only in particularly justified cases may the period of stay be extended by a further 3 months, for example, as a result of the epidemiological situation in 2020. Among the additional WCPR activities implemented over the last decade, there were projects co-financed from EU funds, supporting and expanding the integration offer. Integration for Independence, Welcome to Warsaw, and Support-Activation-Inclusion offered, among others, support of a housing assistant, and they were addressed only to people living in Warsaw and already having one of the forms of international protection.

The meeting was also attended by representatives of the Municipal Social Welfare Center in Lublin responsible for providing housing support to people with one of the forms of international protection. The information provided shows that Lublin has recently resigned from a special pool of sheltered flats intended for this special group of recipients after several years of operation. The new regulations on housing support for refugees say that persons with such status or with subsidiary protection in Poland will receive additional points when considering applications for council housing from the general pool of municipal resources.

Conclusions – Discussion
During the discussion, a number of issues were raised, pointing to numerous obstacles, inaccuracies, as well as gaps in the law which make it very difficult for persons granted international protection and persons under the asylum procedure to obtain a safe and stable place of residence. The main obstacles faced by people with a refugee experience with regard to housing include: problems with renting in the commercial market, the Individual Integration Program that is not well adjusted to the needs of its beneficiaries, the lack of recognition of the needs of people with refugee experience in local housing policies, the lack of governmental housing and anti-refugee discourse of authorities, the lack of significant cooperation of local authorities with NGOs, as well as the lack of an efficient crisis aid system.

Taking into account the scale of needs and the high costs of increasing the housing resources of municipalities (often exceeding their real capabilities), it is worth looking for innovative ways to reduce the deficit of residential premises adapted to the needs of people using them, while at the same time expanding the scope of the forms of assistance offered. At this point, it is important to emphasize the importance and role of all solutions that allow for more effective use of already existing resources,  and also private resources which, with the implementation of appropriate measures, can become an effective solution in the face of the observed problems. There are a number of innovative housing assistance programs that can serve as examples of good practices that can be implemented at the local administration level, the activities of organizations and local governments presented during this meeting deserve special attention in this regard.

Alicja Szczutowska
NIEM’s National Coalition Officer
The Migration Policy Programme
Institute of Public Affairs

The meeting is co-financed from the EU's Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund under the project "NIEM: National Integration Evaluation  Mechanism. Measuring and Enhancing the Integration of Beneficiaries of International Protection" and the project "V4NIEM 2020-2021:  Towards common advocacy on integration", which is co-financed by the Governments of Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia through  Visegrad Grants from International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund (IVF) is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in  Central Europe. Donors are not responsible for the content or use of information. The organizers are solely responsible for the content and  opinions expressed.”