On the occasion of the launch of our latest mapping “User involvement as pathway to social inclusion”, we interviewed Vincent Morival, Director of Housing First/Abej Solidarité, about their projects in Lille. 


ABEJ Solidarite has been created in Lille to support the most excluded. Can you give us a brief overview of the services  you are offering?

ABEJ Solidarite is an organization which tries to always be present when people with no homes and no hopes need help. From a volunteer-based programme in 1985, ABEJ developed its actions to be able to address all the difficulties of the people we want to help. We offer:

  • Day shelters in Lille that help around 6000 people every year
  • Outreach teams which go all around Lille to meet homeless people
  • A health center with free appointments with doctors, and free medicine
  • Medical outreach teams
  • A group home with medical service for people with mental health issues
  • Accommodation and social rehabilitation centers
  • Transitional housing
  • A second-hand shop that provides jobs for young people
  • Supported work experiences for people who need help getting back to a normal job

The idea of all those services is that if you want to help the most excluded people, you can’t just give them a roof over their heads. You need to help them in a more global manner and help them with all their difficulties.

One of the key objectives of ABEJ Solidarite is to achieve social inclusion of your users. What does this mean concretely and how do you support the social inclusion of your users?

From the beginning, the idea of the Baptist community that started ABEJ was that you can’t help homeless people if you don’t listen to them and help them take control of their destiny and their social inclusion.

Today, we still firmly believe in this principle, and we try to promote their participation in all our programmes. This is why in all of our centers, we have users’ committees which help them be part of the project we want to build for them.

Users’ involvement is the real key to social inclusion. For instance, in one of our projects, the “Sharing House”, everybody is a team member and every team member has a role to play. You start by being a user, you receive help, but then, the project is designed to allow you to become a volunteer who can bring his talents to help the others. The person who receives becomes this way the person who gives, and this is the real start of social inclusion.

Recently, we have decided to take this inclusion to another level by recruiting peer workers. In our Housing First project, we recruited people who had no diploma but who had lived with mental health problems or had the experience of living in the streets. Theses peer workers help the social and medical teams by sharing their experiences.  They can relate to our users more closely and, most importantly, they are role models for users who are still struggling with problems too severe to let them become autonomous. The sole fact of their presence in the team gives our users hope that their situation can improve. This is priceless… ABEJ Solidarité’s goal is to have peer workers in all of its services.

An important part of your work is the housing first approach, which is not very wide spread in France. Has it been difficult to gain public support (e.g. funding) and acceptance by the general population for this part of your work?

ABEJ Solidarité has always had a Housing First strategy in its centres. The idea from the start was that the first step toward social inclusion is to provide people with a place to stay. In 1997, when we opened our shelter, we decided to accept homeless people without conditions. We offered them a chance to have an single room that they could lock and unlock with their own key, a place of their own where they can come as they are, with their pets if they have any. The philosophy of the shelter is that everything that is not illegal should be permitted. And the general consensus is that all shelters should incorporate these principles.

With this experience in mind, we were chosen by the government to develop the Housing First project in Lille. This programme is based on recovery orientation and harm-reduction approaches. The basic principle of the programme is to give rapid access to self-contained housing units with security of tenure, with no pre-conditions such as a requirement to accept medical treatment. This was part of a 5-year government-led trial in 4 cities in France, with university researchers studying the social impact of the programme: 353 homeless people were housed in the programme, 352 received the usual services offered to homeless people. At the end of the trial period, we were able to show that 85% of the people in Housing First were still in their housing, and that most of them were satisfied by the programme and were are doing better than the test group. Most importantly, we were able to demonstrate that the annual cost for people enrolled in Housing First is estimated to be 14 000 Euros a year, and the avoided cost is 18 000 euros a year. With these results, nobody could contest the superiority of the model, and the government decided at the end of 2016 to transform the trial into a permanent project and to develop it in many different cities.

Recently, ABEJ Solidarite also started a project targeting young people in particular. Why did you decide to do this and what makes this project different from your usual services?

We target young homeless people who have been living in the streets of Lille for different reasons:

  • They are usually not accepted in other shelters, either because they don’t have any money at all, or because they are rumored to be more difficult to help.
  • We realized that they have specific needs that our social workers couldn’t address because they had insufficient time and also because the needs of younger homeless people are different from older homeless people.
  • Our organization wants to try a new way of helping homeless people with specific needs

Our Youth Programme first provides young homeless people with a room or an apartment, which is the first step toward social inclusion. The fact that the programme is included in a shelter with transitional housing is one of the key factors of its success. In this programme, we offer the youths a lot of fun activities (cultural, leisure, sports…) but in exchange, every week, they have to do one activity aimed at professional and social reintegration and one socially useful activity (doing something for the common good, volunteering, helping others…)

The programme is designed to promote social inclusion through all the activities it provides.

Every week, a group meeting is organized. During that meeting, each youth has to choose which activities he or she wants to do. They can also propose their own activities. They are the real actors of the programme. This works both as a group (which activities are we going to do together this week?) and individually (What am I going to choose for each of the categories?) By making them choose what they want to do and how they want to do it, we try to foster a “moving on” culture for each of the youths as soon as he or she is ready.

This programme is also different because it is not run by a traditional social worker, but by a social coach whose job is to be on the youths’ side to help them be the actors of their social inclusion.

What is the current role of local authorities in France in fighting homelessness and social exclusion? Which measures should be taken to better fight homelessness and social exclusion in France?  

One of the government’s objectives, when they were elected, was a goal of having “zero homeless people in the street”. They decided to promote a Housing First strategy all over France, and they recently released a plan to fight poverty. These are good steps and good initiatives. The problem is that funding is not sufficient to finance what should be done to fight homelessness and social exclusion. Housing First doesn’t mean “Housing only”. Social support is crucial for helping people stay in their housing, and this support is not free. If this support is not funded, there is a big risk that the Housing First strategy will fail even though it has great potential.

The other main measure that should be taken to fight homelessness is to address the issue of migrants who live in France without papers and without the right to work or access social services.  Most migrants have no intention to return to their country and will remain in France.  Denying them the right to work and to become active members of our society is counterproductive…