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69. The Unit for Temporary Housing (ULT)

69.1. Short description

This municipal service offers temporary subsidised housing to vulnerable populations: foreign households in a challenging housing situation, people who become homeless and sometimes those who are seriously depressed following a separation, households with massive employment and debts problems. The project aims to counterbalance the effects of the Geneva very limited housing market (very low rate of available dwellings) on marginalised people’s housing conditions and opportunities. This building (called Michel Simon) was inhabited by elderly people 30 years ago but populations have changed since the 1990s through policy effects.

The municipality of Geneva turned this building into a place offering 157 temporary subsidised flats. What is specific in the ULT is that residents may be supported by a team employed by the municipality, i.e. a building manager and two nurses. Indeed, the health dimension of social vulnerability has been taken into account and is, as a matter of fact, a key feature of many users living there. The maximum stay is officially 6 months but it may be longer and many residents have been living there for 1 and even 2 years. Rent varies according to the tenants’ resources. This service takes into account risk biographies and how life accidents overlap with health, employment, family status and housing situation.

Roughly, tenants may be divided in two parts: first of all, we find people who are excluded from the labour market for several years and cannot have an autonomous flat. Most of the time they lack of qualifications, have substantial social problems and health conditions, which are the key elements explaining that their lack of jobs for a very long time. The case of Christine exemplifies this type of trajectory: Christine had a very serious car accident in 1995. “I was waiting for the bus and suddenly a car hit me violently. I was completely squeezed. I had multiple injuries and for 1 year I remained in rehabilitation and underwent skin transplants”. Her life completely changed from this moment. Some years after, she became separated from her third husband who “threw her out”. She was not able to find an apartment again as she had no income (she has been affiliated to the Disability Insurance since 1986-1987 because she was previously a drug user and addict with long-term consequences). Some tenants of this category are not likely to go back to the labour market, except perhaps in subsidised jobs.

A second category of tenants that is not insignificant do not have significant health problems but family problems such as a divorce or/and an erratic job career with precarious jobs have not enabled them to get a flat in an autonomous way. Most of them lived in hotels and other people’s flats before accessing these subsidised apartments. Men who got divorced and whose previous wives remained in the family apartment are numerous in this category.

69.2. Conception and ways of addressing users

The ULT contrasts with a traditional pattern of social assistance: indeed, it is not only concerned with the population’s basic needs (food, housing, clothes, etc.) but it also deals with their social isolation. Some people have very little contact with other people and some weeks, they only meet the building manager and nurses. To this end, one of the innovative aspects of the ULT is that it takes into account diverse dimensions of social marginalisation: housing, health and especially psychological troubles, social isolation, lack of autonomy. From this point of view, it contrasts with the compartmentalisation of social policy programmes and with traditional social housing projects.

Ways of addressing users contribute to make the ULT a place of trust and support that explains and informs people in the city. These places help newcomers to become more familiar with the city and to appropriate it (Cattacin 2009; Cattacin and Kettenacker 2011). It is even more relevant for tenants who recently arrived in Geneva and are not necessarily migrants. Thus, Martine lived in a rural area, Dardilly, for a long time. She was not used to living in the city and was reluctant to go out. She only went outside with her dog. Although she did not like the area Jonction, Martine had good neighbourly relationships with the other people living in the building Michel Simon. She took part in a Christmas event there, she regularly talked to her neighbours and she invited a man living on the same floor for a chat and tea because he was depressed due to an ongoing divorce. To Martine, as to many others, the ULT is one of these small communities providing support and a feeling of belonging to the city even though this process should not be overestimated.

The way public policy has concentrated vulnerable populations in the building has some effects on individuals and neighbourly relationships. The ULT is located in the area La Jonction, a neighbourhood with a low/average rate of socio-economic segregation. There is an over representation of disadvantaged populations with respect to the other areas of the city of Geneva but we also find there intermediary groups, university students and even quite wealthy families. But on the other hand, the ULT displays a pattern of socio-economic segregation at a micro-level (the building) as we only find very disadvantaged households there. It is actually a place of socio-economic segregation within a mixed area.

We found that the concentration of low-income households and high residential proximity shape solidarity practices between neighbours and help them to find diverse strategies and arrangements to deal with problematic situations. Numerous examples might be mentioned: hours of child care, loan of money (50 or 100 euros), short repairs, discussions between neighbours, etc. Consequently, we observed that a concentration of vulnerable populations provides resources to tenants. To some extent, we consider that the ULT is a small stabilising community where people can find a support (from the ULT workers and neighbours) to facilitate daily life. One of the tenants, Catherine, who was homeless and lived in a squat for many months, said: “I have been relieved and moved by how Geneva welcomes me. I am very grateful for this flower they offered me. Since I lived here, I always receive presents…from the Red Cross, places for events, I said to someone it is a permanent Advent time here (…). I am in a transitory time with the protection of the city of Geneva”.

The ULT contributes to make the city more inclusive to precarious and marginalised populations trying to recover. This research outcome sheds light on aspects of segregation differing from those often studied. Indeed, what is commonly called “social mixing of populations” has been at the core of many urban policies as it would enable a better integration of disadvantaged groups – immigrant or low income populations while socio-economic segregation is commonly associated with public disorders, delinquency and increasing of social and urban marginalisation.Research shows that concentration of vulnerable populations may also become a resource for residentsThis innovation is characterised by both closure and openness with respect to the city. On the one hand, closure is related to protection (an intercom is a boundary between outdoor spaces and the interior of the building; nurses and a manager take care of residents). On the other hand, it is opened with respect to the city to the extent that it supports integration of residents into the urban fabric.

It does not mean, however, that conflicts do not occur in the social life of the building. Some residents try to distance themselves from the others, as they want to avoid the label and self-identification of “populations with social problems” (Lapeyronnie 2008). Representations of the building vary according to residents, some who have experienced massive social problems for a long time do not “frame” the place where they live as residents who have experienced a quite sudden social decline following a separation or a loss of job. Brice, for instance, is very critical about his neighbours and it seems that it is highly related to his feeling of social decline (déclassement). Indeed, Brice experienced a social fall following his bankruptcy as an entrepreneur and his recent separation from his wife. The diverse cognitive frames impact upon residents’ practices and relationships with their neighbours.

69.3. Internal organisation and modes of working

The ULT is owned and managed by the city of Geneva (Department for Social Cohesion and Solidarity). The manager and the three nurses have been employed by the city for several years. The building comprises 170 small apartments. People are generally sent there by social workers and NGOs; they have to apply to get a flat. The ULT is part of a large network of emergency housing offered by NGOs and the city services. Flats are supposed to welcome people for up to 6 months but most of people have been living there for 1, 2 or 3 years due to the housing situation in Geneva. The rate of turnover in the rented housing market and the number of available dwellings are very low (0.2 per cent) explaining that people who are evicted from their flats have many difficulties finding a new flat, even a much smaller one. Each year, only 30 residents are able to leave the ULT because they find a flat.

The ULT does not only offer subsidised housing but also diverse types of support to tenants as the modes of working show. Three nurses are in charge of visiting tenants: they provide medication and control evolution of health. Many tenants need medication for depression. Secondly, the building manager has the role of managing common spaces; he is also regularly in touch with tenants and may help them with diverse issues. Maria, a single mother tenant, mentioned that she appreciated the manager of the building: one day, her daughter Evelyne who is disabled, escaped from the flat. The manager found her and brought her back to Maria’s apartment. Investigation in the building showed that he contributes to make the ULT more welcoming and secure. The city of Geneva is also present through the Unité d’Action Communautaire of the neighbourhood Jonction, which is located at the ground floor. Modes of working build up a solidarity network around residents.

We may wonder, however, to what extent the modes of working enable people to become more autonomous. Although we may consider that ULT acknowledges risk biographies and the diverse dimensions of vulnerability (health, social isolation), the team working with residents is not multidisciplinary and the health approach is dominant with three nurses employed. As we said, they provide medication and welcome residents who have health problems. There is a contrast between the statement of a global approach and the management team. To some extent, all happens as if social problems were, to some extent, reduced to health problems. We do not witness, as in the ORIF team, a social adviser who would meet people, discuss their expectations and help them to become more autonomous through training and employment. Still, our investigation showed that residents are a quite heterogeneous group: some of them have health problems and have not been working for a long time but others, who also receive a medical treatment for depression at the ULT, have experimented a marginalisation process only recently due to unemployment, a family breach or bankruptcy. In the latter case, it seems that a medical approach is not sufficient and does not really meet their needs. We may consider that “a psychiatrisation” of social processes is at work to some extent.

69.4. Interaction with the local welfare system

The ULT occupies a specific segment of the housing policy for very low-income populations. In Geneva, the canton is in charge of the social housing policy: allowances, access to subsidised dwellings and emergency housing for people evicted from their flats (most of the time, the canton pays for stays at a hotel for 3 months). Numbers of NGOs (The Salvation army, Emmaus, Carrefour-Rue) offer marginalised populations emergency housing. The ULT deals with people and households who lost their flats following biographic events (loss a job, bankruptcy, divorce, heavy debts and expulsion): some of them still have an income but it does not enable access to a subsidised flat. Differing from people living in the flats offered by most of the NGOs, residents have to pay a rent (in proportion to their income). To some extent, the ULT policy takes into account this particular segment of vulnerable populations: they have not experienced a process of marginalisation for a long time but a biographic event dramatically changed social circumstances under with they live.

In addition, most of measures in social housing policy are individualised and focus on the allocation of a flat to low-income populations: adopting a different perspective, the ULT offers not only a flat but also a secure and stabilising environment. As we said above, ways of addressing users contribute to make the ULT a place of trust, support and information for people in the city. The ULT contributes to shape a more welcoming city, for migrants, for instance, who have suffered from low-standards patterns of housing conditions (Schaerer and Baranzini 2008, see the Geneva WP2 report).


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69. The Unit for Temporary Housing (ULT)


69. The Unit for Temporary Housing (ULT)