A first-chance plan

Support for homeless people and prevention for those at risk are high priorities on Zaragoza’s municipal agenda. “The housing first approach entered the homelessness matter strongly and made us introduce changes,” explains Yolanda Mañas, Head of the Unit on homelessness at Zaragoza City Council. “The idea was to focus on prevention, find services to detect” those at risk of becoming homeless. 

The Spanish city follows a programme called the First Chance Plan, launched in 2018 and adapted throughout the years to find tailored actions in line with the housing first approach.

Mañas says that the goal for those already in a homelessness situation was “to offer solutions adapted to each case and each person, plus increasing the variety of accommodation.” For example, accommodation should be adapted to applicants’ profiles rather than the municipality offering what it has. Homeless people’s needs are diverse.

Mental health – as important as social support 

During Covid, closer contact with the users of the municipal shelter made social workers better understand the situations to which the programme could adapt. That’s how the First Chance Plan was born. 

The council’s first decision was to extend health assistance to homeless people, which includes psychological support nowadays. Initially, it was a measure to detect Covid symptoms but it came to stay. “Social workers felt that medical checks along with social support made us achieve what we never did before,” says Mañas. 

The housing first approach entered the homelessness matter strongly and made us introduce changes in our methodology
— Yolanda Mañas

Social rejection can cause mental health problems. To avoid that and raise awareness, the council plans to connect the old town with a newer area where the municipal shelter is located and organise cultural activities for the neighbours from both areas and users of the shelter, so that they can interact and break down prejudice.

After that, the idea is to work with associations specialised in mental health issues and build a partnership with them to work with people in temporary housing. The council also works with a day centre for homeless people with psychological issues from a charity foundation on this matter. Additionally, people with mental health problems, disabilities and/or addictions and who have been living on the streets for a long time can apply to benefit from the housing first approach. 

Housing and independence – building an autonomous life

In the last three years, Zaragoza has multiplied its resources to cover the need for housing. For example, the municipal housing company contributed to this cause by donating houses, significantly increasing the number of flats. 

Photo by Zaragoza City Council

The 20 homes dedicated to housing with different profiles (ten homes for housing first methodology, five for refugees and five for homeless people) in 2019 have become 97 this year, including a variety of characteristics, such as single-person, couples, single mothers and shared flats, apart from others for refugees or people with disabilities. 46 of them are managed directly by the council and 51 more are in agreement with entities that house specific profiles that come from the social services. 

Homeless women are less visible
— Yolanda Mañas

The common objective of the intervention is to support the construction of autonomous life processes. With the need for accommodation temporarily resolved, the intervention is intensified in the development of their social skills to carry out training and the search for employment, in the belief that through employment, they can maintain an adequate income that allows them to live and care for their family.  

“So the goal is to enter one of these apartments after leaving the temporary accommodation while they are enrolled in the job training and we’re monitoring their health,” concludes Mañas. 

Job training – establishing milestones 

Mayor of Zaragoza, Jorge Azcón.

Social workers were not the only ones that became closer to the municipal shelter. The mayor of Zaragoza and other political representatives worked with the users to send a mask and a note to locals. Politicians realised that “many people have skills they never had the chance to develop,” explains Mañas. 

The political commitment increased thanks to interacting with the users and knowing the matter better. This interaction triggered itineraries and programmes of labour integration choice and control to service users.

Mañas adds that they “decided to continue working on integration itineraries but with a methodology of closeness. They would establish their milestones while we adapt the support and resources to the steps they believe they can take.” 

[Users] would establish their milestones while we adapt the support and resources to the steps they believe they can take
— Yolanda Mañas

Many of the users had training and job experience before the pandemic. For example, two former users initiated the ongoing workshops on sewing and computers, and the current kitchen coordinator of the municipal shelter spent part of 2020 as a user. She worked in hotels and restaurants until the pandemic broke out, when she found herself jobless and homeless.

Photo of the kitchen staff. Photo by Zaragoza City Council
Photo of the kitchen staff. Photo by Zaragoza City Council
Photo of the kitchen staff. Photo by Zaragoza City Council
Photo of the crafts workshop. Photo by Zaragoza City Council
Photo of the crafts workshop. Photo by Zaragoza City Council

The chef of the kitchen teaches how to cook, but realised people do not know how to buy food or organise their meals for the week. For that reason, an association was formed by former workshop attendants of the First Chance programme because they “thought they have much to offer to those in need,” according to Mañas. The team helps with basic needs such as self-care exercises, cleaning patterns or bureaucracy. 

Integrating the gender perspective

Mañas maintains that the First Chance Plan considers the gender perspective to “draw attention to homeless women, who are less visible,” and requires dedicated resources. The plan includes workshops for homeless women, such as cooking, computer and sewing workshops, and activities such as crafts, sports and theatre.  

Many people have skills they never had the chance to develop accurately
— Yolanda Mañas

The crafts group, integrated by women that suffer from cognitive damage, designs the Christmas wishes card that the Councillor sends to the team every year. The actors of the theatre workshop, led by a local theatre director and supported by psychologists, social workers and volunteer actors,  are homeless people and others at risk. The play is presented in public theatres around the city.

Zaragoza also gathers data and monitors and analyses the numbers and trends on this matter to have the information updated at all times. To measure the programme’s success, the municipality has launched an evaluation. 

Zaragoza will host a mutual learning event on homelessness and mental health on 22-24 March 2023. 

The city will offer peer-learning sessions and workshops to city officers, who will also have the chance to hear the experience of former users of the First Chance scheme that have formed an association and are making significant progress in self-employment and peer support. 

Marta Buces Eurocities Writer