At the centre of the Home Silk Road project are 21 homeless families. The project has turned a brownfield site undergoing redevelopment into their temporary home, as well as a hub of cultural and social economy activity. One of the most important objectives of the project is to support the families’ social inclusion and empowerment. This Zoom-In looks in detail at their situation and the impact of the project on their lives so far. It draws heavily on a first qualitative evaluation, produced in June 2021, which entailed a series of in-depth interviews with members of the families. Whilst the project has had positive impacts, experiences vary and there are some important limitations. At the current juncture, most of the families remain in a highly vulnerable and excluded position and face great uncertainty about their future. The project has improved the living conditions of the families but as most do not currently have a right to reside, they cannot work, access social rights, or move into ordinary housing.
Zoom in 3: The Situation of Homeless Families in the Home Silk Road project
This Zoom-In answers a number of questions about the situation of the homeless families accommodated by the Home Silk Road project. What impact has the project had on their lives? What challenges do they face? What does the future hold for them?
The families have all migrated to France. Most from Eastern Europe (Kosovo, Albania, Chechnya); some from Africa (North or sub-Saharan). Most of them have been in France for 5 to 8 years. They generally left their countries of origin for personal safety or because they required specialist healthcare. They have all experienced homelessness in various forms (sleeping rough, staying in squats, staying in emergency shelters etc). Many have applied for asylum, so were provided with stable accommodation as per legal requirements for reception conditions during that process. However, where asylum applications were unsuccessful, homelessness followed. Not having legally recognised residence precludes members of the families from legally working, and from accessing social rights. This maintains them in a situation of extreme exclusion, making it difficult to build a life or plan a future. There has been some turnover over the course of the project, with some families leaving and new ones arriving. If they are regularised, family members want to move into ordinary housing as quickly as possible. The project has engaged with the families in different ways: housing, social support, and participation in the cultural and community life of the site. This integrated approach, in a context of temporary urban planning, characterises the innovative nature of the project.
 Pierre Grosdemouge (2021) ÉVALUATION INTERMEDIAIRE DU PROJET HOME SILK ROAD : PREMIERS ELEMENTS DE SUIVI QUALITATIF DES FAMILLES
A relative stabilisation of their housing situation is seen by most of the resident families as the most significant impact of the project on their lives. In phase 1 of the project, the families were provided with temporary shelter in an existing vacant building. In phase 2, they moved into individual apartments in temporary modular units. They are accommodated for 6 months at a time (renewable), as is standard in an emergency shelter (CHU Centre l’hébergement d’Urgence). The apartments provide families with more privacy and autonomy than they had before – in the initial building for most, in emergency hotels or other settings for more recent arrivals. Private bathrooms and kitchens are the change that families most appreciate. Families are generally very relieved and grateful to be being accommodated by the CHU because it is better than the alternatives they have experienced:
" Thank God! Thank God! I was able to put a roof over the heads of my children! Thanks. (he cries) I didn't think I would ever make it. They are safe. The most important here, for me, it is to have been able to shelter my family. I was able to put a roof over the head of my wife and children”. (Male 30 years old)
However, the apartments are not adequate housing. The studios are small and, in many instances, overcrowded. The living area doubles as a sleeping area. There is a lack of privacy and space, which is a particular problem for children and young people as regards their social relations and their schoolwork. During COVID lockdowns, this was especially difficult. Efforts have been made to accommodate families according to their needs, and the residents were involved in planning the modular units. There are larger units, where several of the modules are joined together. But most do not have enough space for their needs, especially as some have welcomed new babies during the project.
Whilst the families stress their appreciation of a relative improvement in their living conditions, their aspiration is generally to move into regular housing as soon as possible. However, they face huge uncertainty about the future. The current modular housing units are expected to move from the project site in 2023. The families are expected to move with them, but it is currently unclear where they will go. The Metropole of Lyon is exploring several options for new sites. Concerningly, the interim evaluation found that the families were often not aware of the fact that the accommodation would only be in place for 3 years, which seems to be a significant shortcoming in transparency, likely to create a lot of frustration and anxiety. This has evolved since then and the families are aware today. It is unclear what alternative housing or accommodation options might be available to the families. When construction on the site is complete, there will be housing options for homeless people, including 12 flats for Housing First. However, people without a right to reside cannot access this (see below). Furthermore, delays in construction mean that there will be a gap of approximately 1 year between the deadline for moving the modules in 2023 and the completion of Building B, which will contain the 12 flats for Housing First. In Spring 2022, one project partner predicted that about half the current households will ultimately be able to be rehoused on the project site.
It was always going to be challenging to facilitate sustainable integration based on housing for homeless people without a legally recognised right to reside. Yet, part of the project’s ambition was to help shift from the short-termism of managing homelessness through temporary shelter, to a focus on long-term integration for people with an irregular status. It is unclear at this juncture how successful Home Silk Road will be in this respect. Project partners are working intensively to find future housing solutions for the families, but it is a challenging task given the different levels of government involved in migration, shelter and housing policy. The project has already demonstrated the positive impact of residential stability, integrated with social support and culture. It has offered families more adequate living conditions than conventional emergency shelter or hotels. The question now is what future it can offer them.
 Ibid, pg 15
The interim evaluation found that families appreciate the social support they receive in the project, especially support with administrative procedures, notably regarding residence status. This is provided by the Alynea team on-site (social workers, youth worker, manager, etc.) as part of the CHU.
“The office, the social workers, the educators, they helped us a lot, frankly. To print, give information, a telephone number for a doctor. Then I can call on my own. They help us, frankly, they help”. (Woman, 40)
Support with regularization is the biggest concern of families. A small number of residents have obtained regularization. The majority remain in highly vulnerable situations, waiting on administrative decisions. The role of social workers in helping with applications is therefore highly appreciated.
“They help us put together the file, they help us with the papers. They tell us what we have to do, but afterwards… it’s the prefecture, so we wait…” (Woman, 50)
The fact of having stable temporary housing, and access to social support, allows the residents to strengthen their applications for regularisation. They get advice from the staff and take advantage of the different activities and forms of support available (work experience e.g. through the Workshop for Adapting to Active Life (AAVA), volunteering, availability of social workers & legal advice).
Residents are also supported in relation to employment, education & training. Without recognised residence, it is not possible to work. However, the project has helped family members to develop skills and to take steps towards work and integration in society. For example, BaklAVAA, a workshop for adapting to active life (AAVA) in the catering sector established under the project, provides people with the opportunity to develop skills and experience. The interim evaluation found that some beneficiaries were reluctant to engage with BaklAVAA because they saw it as poorly paid work, rather than a work integration experience with a trainee status that could facilitate inclusion. It is likely that perceptions of BaklAVAA have improved now that it has been functioning for several months. However, only a minority of people living on the site are engaged, and many of the trainees come to the site from elsewhere. Most are women. The traineeships seem to be less appealing to men who expect to be the breadwinners in their family. The project has created opportunities for work integration experiences in various aspects of the construction industry: cleaning, structural work, carpentry, locksmithing, metalwork, plasterwork, and finishing.
In most of the families, at least one member has undertaken volunteering, usually for one to two years. They recognise volunteering as an important means to support regularisation. A record of volunteering strengthens an application and supports integration by helping with learning French, building a network etc.
Families find the support available to them for schoolwork from volunteers and social workers valuable. The project has also provided opportunities for young people to engage in informal learning such as a rap and slam programme. The interim evaluation found that young people were amongst the most aware of and engaged in the cultural dimension of the project and initiatives like a digital workshop.
It is important to note that the UIA project has enabled more social support that would ordinarily be available in a homeless shelter, or in a hotel. It has funded an additional social worker. One current challenge is that, as the project enters its final phase, Alynea has struggled to replace staff that have left the CHU. It has had to reply on short-term replacements, which compromises the continuity of support.
In June 2021, the interim evaluation found that only a minority of family members were aware of and engaged in the cultural activities on the site. Young people and those speaking fluent French were the most engaged. Amongst adults, women participated more than men. For a minority, the cultural and community activities on site were already generating benefits. However, most residents were not well informed about the cultural and community dimensions of the project and were not involved. This was a cause for concern and is something project partners have worked to address. It will be a point of attention for the follow-up evaluation. One project partner described the lack of progress on long term perspectives for the families as a barrier to proactively engaging them in the cultural and community life of the site.
The biggest problem facing the families is that they are residing irregularly. Many have had asylum claims rejected and are appealing or hoping to obtain regular status on other grounds (private and family life, length of stay, work etc). The project supports them with these processes, namely the application that they need to make to the prefecture (local branch of the State). A small minority of households have been regularised over the course of the project so far. However, most remain in an irregular situation that precludes them from accessing social rights, from working legally, and thus from moving into more adequate, secure, and long-term housing.
This state of limbo has a huge effect on the well-being of family members. The interim evaluation found that the fathers, who expect to provide for their family, were particularly confronted with boredom, anxiety and depression. Young people and children face specific pressures too: their precarious status in the context of school, navigating complex questions of identity and belonging, supporting their parents and other family members, whilst trying to become more independent. Irregular status also makes things uniquely difficult for residents that care for a sick family member. They are very isolated and cannot avail of any of the support measures for carers in France. Being undocumented impacts on every aspect of their lives, including their capacity to move freely because of fears of identity checks.
As the project enters its final phase, discussions between the project partners and the prefecture have intensified regarding the future situation of the families. At the beginning of June, a meeting was organised between project partners and the relevant State authorities at regional level (DREETS, DDT). The partners proposed that all the families should be able to access social rental housing. This would require either a regularisation of their status or a derogation regarding the conditions of access to social housing. A working group bringing together different stakeholders has been set up to explore these options. The outcome of the working group will be critical. At the same time, project partner Alynea continues to support the families to apply for regularization on the grounds of work.
This Zoom-In has shown that the Home Silk Road has had a positive impact on the homeless families accommodated on the site. It has provided them with temporary accommodation in more dignified conditions, social support, and opportunities to engage in culture and the community, all of which supports inclusion. However, the families continue to live in very difficult circumstances. Their future remains very uncertain, notably in relation to their administrative status, and thus their living situations. Irregular status is the biggest barrier that the families face. It precludes them from work, from housing and from social rights. Without a right to reside, members of these families are excluded from social housing, including that which is being built on the site. The families also face insurmountable barriers in accessing housing on the private rental sector; notably because they cannot legally work or access social rights. This undermines the goal of the Home Silk Road project to build an inclusive city, with vulnerable people at its heart.
The project partners have limited competence to address the residency status of the families beyond providing social support. It is State policy that determines conditions for legal residency, as well as to shelter and to housing. It is the prefecture that makes decisions on regularisation. There has been a hardening of State policy in recent years, meaning people who find themselves without a legally recognised right to reside increasingly face homelessness and housing exclusion in France.
One project partner described the lack of progress on long-term perspectives for the families as the biggest frustration of the project. There is frustration amongst the partners that 3 months away from the close of the project, they are still working on the basis of shelter and temporary solutions. A small minority of families have left the project having obtained legal status.
The Home Silk Road project partners are currently negotiating with the prefecture to find solutions for the 21 families. If they are successful, the project will have provided a route to sustainable integration. If not, the project will have failed to entirely realise its objectives, despite having contributed to an improvement of the families’ situation.
 Fondation Abbé Pierre (2021) Fabrique des personnes "sans-papiers", fabrique des mal-logés, available at : https://www.fondation-abbe-pierre.fr/actualites/fabrique-des-personnes-sans-papiers-fabrique-des-mal-loges