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Image: World Habitat Homelessness Programme team with members of Housing First NGO Udruga AJA and the Istria Regional Government

While Croatia lacks a national strategy for homelessness, the city of Pula is making significant strides in tackling the issue with Housing First, a proven approach to end homelessness. Last week, Pula hosted a successful three-day study visit for stakeholders across Croatia and neighbouring countries to learn from their groundbreaking work.

A study commissioned by World Habitat for the Central and Eastern Europe region and specifically Croatia last year, demonstrates that official figures of people experiencing homelessness vastly understate the actual situation and scale of homelessness. The homelessness sector is overwhelmingly dominated by emergency and temporary responses rather than services aimed at preventing or ending homelessness.

Marijana Penava, Head of Services for the Protection of Vulnerable Groups at Croatia’s Ministry of Labour, Pension System, Family and Social Policy explained that “In Croatia there is a National Plan to tackle poverty and social exclusion, but nothing specific on homelessness. There are no set goals or targets as a result. So, it has been great to learn about Housing First in practice here in Pula. When you see it, you can really understand how it works and how others could do it too.”

Housing First differs from traditional approaches to homelessness. Instead of requiring people experiencing homelessness to prove they can hold down a home before getting one, it provides stable housing first. This removes a huge barrier and allows people to focus on addressing the underlying issues that contributed to their homelessness, such as mental health challenges or family breakdown. The success of Housing First is well documented internationally, with Finland serving as a powerful example that was recognised by the World Habitat Awards in 2014. There, the program has dramatically reduced homelessness to almost zero, proving it’s a practical and effective solution.

The Pula model thrives on strong partnerships and support at the right level. The programme brings together representatives from Pula’s local government, Istria region, the Ministry of Labour, Pension System, Family and Social Policy, the Croatian Homeless Network, and the newly established Housing First NGO Udruga AJA – the organisation running the project in the city. This great cooperation has accelerated the speed at which Pula has been able to be the first city in Croatia to implement the model.

“World Habitat connected us with the Housing First Hub and thereby provided us with education, familiarization with the Housing First model, and connected us with various organisations from Europe which greatly helped us in the process” said Helena Babić of AJA.

During the study visit, Serbian NGO Adra, study visit sponsors World Habitat, plus their partners from Bratislava, Bucharest and Budapest all heard first-hand about the ground-breaking working being done in Pula to tackle homelessness in a cost-effective and lasting way.

“The study visit fostered a valuable exchange of experiences,” said Ivana Sokolov, Director of the City Of Pula’s Department for Social activities, Youth and Sports, adding, “I want to say to other municipalities in Croatia that change is possible. It is time for us to realise together that our working models and ways of thinking about homelessness are outdated. We can tackle these problems, but let’s do it in the right way.  And I believe Housing First is the right way – you just have to give it a chance, like we are doing in Pula.  We have to learn and change perceptions of who a homeless person is – both our own perceptions as municipalities and those of our citizens. I am so excited to be doing new and better things for our community.”

Željka Grbac, Senior Advisor at the Ministry  of Labour, Pension System, Family and Social Policy said “The Ministry provides funding to Pula-based Udruga AJA for a Housing First and mobile teams project – the first time we have ever done this.  They are doing a great job and we hope that their experience and example can be spread to other Croatian towns and cities.”

Pula’s leadership in implementing Housing First offers hope for a future without homelessness in Croatia. Through collaboration, knowledge sharing, and a commitment to effective solutions, other cities can learn from Pula’s model and create positive change for their communities.

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