Expert article
Home Silk Road - Housing toward empowerment Lyon Metropole, France
Modifier 22 May 2023
by Ruth Owen, UIA Expert

The End of the Home Silk Road

Mobile Modular Housing Units, Home Silk Road
Mobile Modular Housing Units, Home Silk Road, Lionel Rault
At the end of October 2O22, the Home Silk Road project officially came to an end. Six months later, this article looks back at the project’s achievements and limitations. It focuses especially on how innovative the project was and what impact it had on the inclusion of migrant families facing homelessness.

Home Silk Road was an Urban Innovative Action designed to support the development of an inclusive city in Villeurbanne. The project took place in the context of a large urban renewal project, l’Autre Soie. Home Silk Road activated a construction site in Villeurbanne for inclusion, culture and the social economy to experiment an inclusive city. It involved a unique partnership between the Metropole of Lyon, Alynéa (an NGO providing shelter and support services), Est Métropole Habitat (a social housing company), the Ecumenical Cultural Center ("CCO", a laboratory for social and cultural innovation), and the City of Villeurbanne. The project started in 2018 and ended in 2022.

Home Silk Road provided a testbed for innovation. Homeless families were provided with temporary housing and support on the construction site, where a rich ecosystem for culture and the social economy was created. The project enabled the partners to collaborate in new ways,  and to experiment new practices to test ways of creating an inclusive city with vulnerable people at its heart.  

The project partnership itself was innovative – wide, cross-sectoral and multi-level. It proved to be extremely adaptable and flexible. The partners were able to adjust  to the extremely challenging circumstances of the COVID19 pandemic and to find the best way to pursue the project objectives when things did not go to plan.

One of the distinctive features of the project was the wide scope of innovation, covering different fields- urban planning, housing, culture, inclusion, the social economy. Examples of ore innovations in these areas included:

  1. Renovating a landmark historic building associated with the local silk industry to build social housing for vulnerable and excluded people as part of a mixed neighbourhood.
  2. A temporary occupation of the site during the redevelopment process. This involved accommodating families from the Alfred de Musset Emergency Shelter Centre in individual units and providing them with support whilst developing social economy and cultural activities on site.
  3. Developing high quality, mobile housing units to be used as temporary housing during the project, then in other available sites around the Metropole of Lyon.
  4. Providing more flexible, individualised, and integrated support to homeless families.
  5. Exploring new ways of thinking about the inclusive city and social mix.
  6. Consultation and participation with a wide range of audiences throughout the project.
  7. Inclusive and sustainable construction methods, including the use of social and sustainable procurement and reuse of materials.

The main theme of the Home Silk Road project was housing. The project demonstrated the critical role that housing, combined with support, can play in social inclusion. Families with precarious legal status who were staying in an emergency shelter in a formerly disused building were provided with temporary modular housing in individual units. This is a very different living situation to an emergency shelter  with shared facilities in an ill-adapted building. The housing was combined with flexible, personalised, and holistic support. The premise of the project was that providing the families with individual flats, support and opportunities to participate in the cultural life of the site, would support their social inclusion. This proved true but with important limitations.

The modular housing made a real difference to the families’ living conditions during the project. Interviews revealed that family members appreciated their flats, especially having their own kitchen and bathroom. There were nonetheless issues with the size of the units and overcrowding. Family members also appreciated the social support that they received. Many, especially the younger members, participated actively in and benefited from the cultural life of the site. 

The situations of the families have changed during the project. Some people are regularised, some have gained a full or part-time employment. Others’ administrative situation remains precarious. The final evaluation report found that the families’ situation had improved in many respects. All the children are in school. All the adults have made progress in their mastery of French, even if language remains a barrier and a source of discrimination for some. In more than half the families at least one person is working legally now (permanent or temporary contract, paid apprenticeship, self-employed). Some adults have even managed to get a job with a contract despite their irregular situation. Some participate in training, including onsite at the Baklaava catering workshop, to improve their future employability and support their application for regularisation. There is a high rate of serious health problems amongst the family members. Access to appropriate diagnosis and treatment has improved during the project. Some of the beneficiaries report moving more freely and engaging in more leisure activities than they did at the outset of the project.

The initial logic of the project was that the families would be able to become independent and to access permanent social rental housing on the site. In practice, this has proved complicated for several reasons. The most important one is that many of the family members still do not have legally recognised residence status, which is why they were homeless and staying in emergency shelter in the first place. Some, especially amongst the young adults, have been regularised during the project. This is very good news and means that they can move on with their lives. A small minority have left the project to move into independent housing. They can work legally and access their social rights. However, those in an irregular situation, despite their best efforts and those of the social workers supporting them, are stuck in a very vulnerable and marginalised situation.

The State policy, over which the partners had little control, has had a major impact on the project’s capacity to support the inclusion and autonomy of the families. Home Silk Road was initially designed for homeless people with secure administrative status. In the end, decisions at the State level meant that the residents were people in irregular situations. The partners had to adapt to this. Supporting the families to apply for regularisation by the end of the project became a major priority. The partners, especially Alynea, supported the families extensively with their administrative procedures. However, regularisation decisions are ultimately beyond the control of the beneficiaries and the partners. Most of the families have not been able to regularise their status.

Uncertainty about the future of the families at the project’s end is a major cause of concern. This undermines the inclusion successes, which have been considerable. The families face major upheaval and a possible worsening of their situation. At the time of writing, the project partners are looking for a new site that the remaining families can move to with the modular units. Several options within the Metropole of Lyon are being considered.

Home Silk Road’s efforts to facilitate the social inclusion to people facing homelessness have run up against limits of migration policy. Despite its important successes, the project could not overcome this barrier to social inclusion for many of the beneficiaries. This is a source of frustration to the project partners and the beneficiaries.

Whilst the project is officially over, many elements of Home Silk Road continue.  CCO will move to its new permanent premises this Autumn. Until then, the temporary occupation of the site continues. As discussed above, the relocation of the families and the modular units is still being planned. The catering workshop, which provides work experience and integration opportunities for some members of the families, is moving to a new site in Villeurbanne where another temporary occupation is underway.

Another challenge going forward is whether, with the formal governance of the project discontinued, the partners will be able to sustain the joint commitment to the project’s core goals.

The most important unanswered question is what dignified solutions will be found for the families beyond the project. At the time of writing, this remains unclear.