Marseille, France has created a social innovation laboratory designed to revolutionize homeless shelters. With a goal of “zero net homelessness” in the next ten years, “Lab Zero” is determined to expand its experiments. Will it be able to influence national programs?

In a white-walled co-working space in Marseille’s Wasteland – a burgeoning cultural space uniting cultural associations, theaters, and artists –, a small, young, motivated team has moved in, determined to combat local homelessness until it’s but a bad memory.

At the moment, there are more homeless than ever in France – 141,500 people in 2012 – and social organizations, overwhelmed, are trying as hard as they can to help them. So what if, instead of spending their respective energies only on the homeless in their respective areas, homelessness workers united with public support to catalyze their projects? That’s what’s happening right now in Marseille, where, in February 2018, the prefecture of the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur (PACA) region and the social projects incubator Marseille Solutions have created a public innovation laboratory, financed and directed by the state: Lab Zero.

“Using the ‘zero waste’ project in San Francisco as inspiration, which managed to recycle more than 80% of its trash, we had the idea to take on ‘zero horizon’ projects. Dedicating ourselves to a social or environmental subject and trying to dream big motivates and speeds things up, because it lets us focus on a goal more than the means,” explains Marthe Pommié, recently named head of Lab Zero and director of modernization of the PACA prefecture.

The Lab Zero team, which brings together public authorities, Marseille Solutions facilitators, and volunteers from local associations, has 18 months to create and effectuate solutions “likely to improve public action.” As in a scientific lab, its young members (average age: 30) are carrying out several experimental projects at both a neighborhood and service scale, possibly to eventually become law or public policy.

Zero Homeless

The lab’s goal – zero homelessness in Marseille in 10 years – might seem fantastic at first. “But aiming to defeat the problem motivates us more than going for an intermediary solution,” Marthe Pommié says. With actors in the field and organizations involved who work with 12,500 Marseille homeless each day, such as Fondation Abbé Pierre or the MARSS (Mouvement et Action pour le Rétablissement Sanitaire et Social) street team, public authorities have come to the table to work out projects that could make their ambitious dream a reality. “Pretty quick, there has been consensus on the fact that it’s possible, by multiplying bottom-up solutions as soon as the person ends up on the street,” says Aurélie Tinland, psychiatrist with the MARSS team, who had just returned from a drive through Marseille’s southern neighborhoods, hit especially hard by homelessness.

Also a researcher, the psychologist has worked since 2011, along with the Laboratory of Public Health, on the project “Un chez soi d’abord” (“Housing First”). Inspired by Canadian and American Housing First programs, which aim to provide unconditional housing to the homeless, “Un chez soi d’abord” uses the principle that immediate access to housing gives people the opportunity to improve their quality of life and get better care. The idea, then, is to house homeless who are affected by severe psychiatric issues, without any wait list, then to set up care and support. This large-scale project, first attempted in Marseille and Lille, has now been adopted throughout France and is bearing fruit: a good thousand people have already been relocated, sustainably. “But it’s limited to its target audience: homeless suffering from schizophrenia who are long-term homeless,” Aurélie Tinland explains. “Now, we want to go further and help everyone in the streets.”

At Lab Zero, two experiments are happening in tandem. The first, which is starting in spring 2018 with around 100 homeless, aims to “get rid of the 115-person-waiting-list logic” by radically transforming the system of care for the homeless.

Using the model for medical emergencies, the idea is to establish social emergencies by acting as soon as possible after the outbreak. As soon as a person lands in the street, they are rehomed in under 72 hours. “The system today is jammed. The newly homeless can wait between nine and 24 months before getting offered lodging. From there, their life deteriorates. But we’re using the Housing First logic, with one big difference: we’re treating everyone unconditionally. We’re working in prevention rather than in curing. We’re preventing people from becoming homeless, until there aren’t any homeless anymore,” Marthe Pommié says.

“The idea is to show that we could create a domino effect on the entire chain of homeless care, particularly on the budget, because a huge part of it today is dedicated to social integration of the homeless, and when you house people immediately, for most of them, there would be no need for social reintegration.”

The second project consists of increasing housing solutions by temporarily occupying vacant buildings. A legal squat, in other words, on contract. “Since Lab Zero is part of the state, this has been discussed and effected, free of charge, for three years, in the former offices of DirMed [Direction Méditerranée, responsible for routes in the PACA region], a 4,000 m2 building on Rue Bernard du Bois in Marseille’s downtown Belsunce neighborhood,” Aurélie Tinland says.

In this popular spot, situated just a few minutes from the Gare de Marseille Saint-Charles station, the residents are mostly young, unemployed, and financially hard off. While class mobility seems barred off for many of these people, dozens and dozens of those without homes at all live in the streets and overflowing shelters. Hence the idea of treating both populations at the same time. Using the model of the Grands Voisins in Paris and of 123 Rue Royale in Brussels, 80 to 120 homeless should be rehomed in several months in the brbrand-newernard du Bois residence. At the same time, local organizations, businesses, artists, and shop owners will be invited to come “infuse the area” and create a “vibrant and trafficked space.”

Lab Zero also hopes to create a “community village,” where the homeless can potentially find opportunities to reinsert themselves into society, but also where the residents of Belsunce can potentially develop new perspectives. “It’s wonderful for the neighborhood, this space where people are going to intermix, which is going to lead to more tourist attraction,” said Ali Timizar, president of CIQ Belsunce, in La Provence. The Bernard du Bois residence will be a way of “stimulating a local economy, reducing government expense on vacant building maintenance, and eliminating barriers and stigmatization of homeless people,” Marthe Pommié explains. “We’re showing that everyone can win here.”

At the helm of the project is the organization Plateau Urbain, which finds apartments and nearby vacants to house cultural, social, and solidarity projects; Yes We Camp, originating in Grand Voisins; and the group SOS, responsible for housing the homeless. “The idea is to show that it’s possible. We’re trying to create a standard for the government and its organizations, to create future, temporary options, such as how to make a call for proposals, who to involve… We’re trying to develop a model, an open-source kit that can be used by other cities,” Aurélie Tinland says.

In June 2019, Lab Zero will present a “report” of its projects. “We’re hoping, of course, to get extended, to be reappointed so we can reach our goal by 2028,” she says. Other projects could then be launched, in addition to the temporary jobs and social emergencies. One of them, already planned, could well be inspired by the Finnish model of fighting homelessness.

Inspiration from the Cold

In Finland, it’s impossible to sleep outside in the winter, when the temperature reaches -20°C. Getting the homeless off the streets or into the houses of people close to them is a necessity for the government. As a result, a strong political will has practically reduced the number of homeless people to zero. In the frame of the PAAVO program, launched in 2008, the idea was to act on all fronts – and to construct 3,700 new social housing units, all while developing better care and prevention services (particularly via advice to people in precarious situations, to help them hold onto housing).

One of the projects central to PAAVO was the transformation of emergency shelters and dilapidated or unused housing into Housing First units and perennial housing — in Helsinki, for example, the former Alppikatu center, which provided more than 500 beds, was changed by the Y-Foundation (a non-profit housing provider) and the Finnish government into a Housing First service, offering 80 individual, furnished, and renovated apartments.

“Our project would be to do the same thing in Marseille and to transform the UHU (unité d’hébergement d’urgence) of the SOS group in Madrague into living spaces for the chronically homeless accustomed to living there: the ‘marginalized’ who return there every day, voluntarily, and who live in a state of faux-emergency,” Aurélie Tinland says. “Rather than abruptly changing their habits, we would build up housing around them and give them an address.” The Finnish Housing First plan cost about 240 million euros in 10 years, but it’s profitable, costing the government only half as much as the previous system, thanks to the decrease in emergency and health care.

In France, the Foundation Abbé Pierre (which participates in Lab Zero in Marseille) guesses that they’d need to build (from the ground up or from shelters) 150,000 social housing units per year to beat homelessness. As the site Reporterre notes, the Finnish key to success is government involvement, which led a Housing First policy both at the national and local levels by teaming up with organizations and landlords. As for Lab Zero, we see the same dynamic at play. “The strength of this public innovation laboratory comes from government support. They’re the ones who create the energy, which gets related institutions and organizations working that often don’t work well together, and that’s what makes the difference with a similar project that would otherwise be stymied,” Marthe Pommié says.

Lab Zero must also be inspired by the American Housing First example. In Utah, 15 years ago, several young people without any support and people suffering from mental issues (about 2,000 homeless) were sleeping outdoors every night. Today, only 500 (still) remain without a roof over their heads. To reach this kind of drastic reduction in homelessness, Jon Huntsman, former government of the Great Salt Lake state, simply decided in 2005 to give, unconditionally, access to housing and a social worker to every homeless person – all while building thousands of social housing units. At the end of 10 years, Salt Lake City (capital of the first American state to establish a Housing First policy) reduced the number of homeless by 72%.

Housing First

Several other initiatives, in France and elsewhere, are likely to be tried by the Marseillaise innovation lab. They would start with projects aiming to allow homeless people to “help themselves” according to a capability-based approach, a philosophy developed by Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel in Economics in 1998, which aims to empower individuals, or to give them the ability to help themselves independently.

“The idea is sort of that the person gets access to housing as quickly as possible, but with the least amount of care possible afterward,” Aurélie  Tinland says. Some projects already do that, which consists of giving homeless people the necessary tools to get back on track by themselves. In Libération, the Belgian researcher Christophe Sente, author of a Fondation Jean-Jaurès report titled “Zero homeless? For the universal allocation of housing,” cites for example, in the expansion of Housing First, the work of the Kenyan organization Give Directly. Give Directly gives homeless people a certain sum of money unconditionally, a form of universal income “framed as a minimalistic administrative package.”

In France, Emmaüs Connect has helped the homeless access phones and the Internet since 2013, using prepaid cards and Web Trotter – a USB plugin that lets you connect to the Internet on any computer or smartphone. By allowing the homeless to call and surf the web, the group is giving them the opportunity to find jobs or even just to stay in contact with their social workers. In the US, New York State is going further, collaborating with local organizations and the startup Blockchain for Change to distribute smartphones to the state’s 200,000 homeless (as of June 2018). Each phone comes equipped with the Fummi app, which lets them access social services (shelters, food pantries, showers), financial services (a virtual wallet and cryptocurrency), as well as to build a digital identity.

“The goal is simply to help homeless people access services they have a right to but which they don’t use, because they often don’t have the papers,” says Josh Thompson, cofounder and CEO of Blockchain for Change. Faced with that, the “chain of blocks” provides an unfalsifiable way of proving one’s identity. “The idea is first and foremost to empower homeless people and to give them security and equality of opportunity using new technologies. Our experiment has just begun, but it’s already been a success: a lot of people can now access services they have rights to, or make simple phone calls.  And thanks to blockchain, in barely three months, New York City has noticed that it’s much easier to track and care for the homeless,” he says.

“Combining a project like this with Housing First would let homeless people pick themselves back up in the long term by finding a job, for example. Government and businesses have the resources to end to homelessness. They just have to work together for the common good and stop boxing one another out with individual projects,” Josh Thompson says, considering Lab Zero’s work as “moving in the right direction, because it unites several actors, both public and private, with a real political drive.”

At the young Marseillaise team’s core, optimism abounds. “In the end, our goal is showing with our small-scale experiments that this can work, and in such a way that they can be carried out in large scale,” Marthe Pommié says.

Worth noting that homelessness should not be the only subject explored by the public innovation lab. Other “zero horizons” are also in sight, starting with “zero recourse,” which consists of pushing people in precarious situations (one in five youths) who, each year, do not receive benefits for which they’re eligible (like tax credits), to assert their rights.