Anna Kocoń, the author of the text below, is one from the Erasmus students from Poland who participated in the Housing First project in Lisbon, driven by HOME_EU partner AEIPS, and called Casas Primeiro. These are her memories of that period.
Four years ago I had an amazing opportunity to take a part in International Internship within the ERASMUS program, at the AEIPS Association in Lisbon. The main goal of AEIPS organization is to support the social reintegration of people who struggle with mental illnesses. It draws aswell special attention to chronically homeless people through an innovative program called Housing First, with whom I had the opportunity to work.
When I started my practice, I didn’t know much about this program, I had no idea how it worked and why it was considered as a very controversial solution. However, a few days of working in a wonderful team, many meetings with the program’s participants as well a theoretical plunge in the subject were enough to understand the unique idea which stands behind the Housing First project. First of all, the program helps those who are forgotten by others, it doesn’t just lend a hand, it gives a real chance to change their lives. Thanks to the program, people who were living 10, 15, 20 years on the streets, finally have an opportunity to receive their own roof over their heads, practically without meeting any criteria. Why without any criteria? Because the program assumes that if we want to help the homeless people in the fight with their illness or help them to quit an addiction, we must first help them fulfill one of the basic human needs which is to feel safe. Only when a chronically homeless person feels again as a full-fledged human being and his / her living situation is improving, he or she can begin to think about improving their mental health. Living on your own has also additional advantages. It helps to increase a sense of responsibility and gives a new meaning to life. Obviously, the recovery process is not easy and it requires a lot of time and determination, however it shows positive results. I had a chance to see how it worked in practice and it turned out to be working very well! People who were struggling with their mental disorders and were living years on the street of Lisbon really made a big life change. Their existence started to have a bigger meaning and they finally could feel like any other citizen.
My Housing First experience which lasted 3 months taught me a lot of things. First of all, it opened my eyes for the problem of homelessness and it showed me a very easy solution to it, which at the same time, society doesn’t understand yet. Because if you think about what a homeless person really needs, the answer is simple. He or she doesn’t need temporary shelter or a few cents for bread. The homeless need a home! The Housing First program increased also my faith in people, it showed that everyone, no matter if they are suffering from mental illness or not, have the right to equal treatment and should have a chance to receive help like anyone else. They also have the right to do with that chance what they want. The Housing First postulates a beautiful concept of freedom to be yourself with which I totally agree. However, I’m aware that many people see it as a complete craziness. People like to control others, like to decide what is right what is not, they like to set the rules and expect that everyone will follow them. This program doesn’t require from participants to fulfill difficult criteria, instead of it, it supports them in their recovery process and gives them right to make their own decisions.
The Housing First it’s not just theoretical assumptions, what is also important is the people who lead the program. Psychologists who are full of passion and commitment, who want to understand other human beings. As a member of the team, I could observe their style of work, which I secretly admired. They treat everyone on the same level, they support them in their daily life and look after their health, but at the same time giving them a free choice. That kind of work is not easy and it requires a huge level of patience and understanding. Workers need to learn how to get to the homeless people, they need to find common language and develop resistance to the failure. For all of that, their positive attitude, very friendly atmosphere, great sense of humor and “charming streets of Lisbon” helps them to fulfill daily responsibilities.
I recall my internship as an unforgettable adventure, regarding both, my private and professional life. I think that The Housing First program deserves wide attention and the main values which it represents should be strengthen in all of the Health Care services and also in everyday life, by all of us!