Since 2007, Portugal has faced an economic crisis to which the government at the time responded by introducing a programme of austerity measures. This has had a major negative impact on the economic, social and cultural rights of people who were already living in vulnerable situations. The downsizing of the public sector resulted in high unemployment rates, lower salaries, higher taxes, and an increase in housing exclusion and homelessness.  There has been some improvement since 2015. However, it will take time until the benefits reach many of those already living in poverty and at risk of social exclusion.

About half a million people (almost 5% of the population) are at risk of housing poverty or social exclusion while almost one-in-four (23%) of the total population cannot keep their home heated. In winter, mortality rates in the country increase by 28%.

Camp In, a project operated by non-profit organisation Just a Change, aims to improve the housing conditions and quality of life of vulnerable or at-risk groups, focusing on rural areas, with special emphasis on insulation, accessibility and access to services such as electricity and piped water.

The project takes the form of a 12-day volunteering summer camp to rehabilitate houses that are unsafe and/or deteriorating. It takes place across Portugal, through partnerships with local municipalities and parishes, local construction companies and suppliers, local engineers and architects, private companies and the local community.

Partners provide in-kind or financial donations for home rehabilitation. The project has established relationships with 14 municipalities to improve housing in those areas. The use of donated materials and pro bono services means that homes can be rehabilitated at a quarter of the market price equivalent.

The model not only benefits those who live in the rehabilitated homes, but also brings increased community cohesion, catalyses partnerships with a wide range of institutions and has a beneficial impact on volunteers.

The project in practice

Just a Change (JaC) is a non-profit grassroots organisation based in Portugal. Founded in 2010, JaC has 12 members of staff. Its activities aim to achieve low-cost, quality and efficient housing rehabilitation, and include four distinct but related programmes.

First, Turn Up recruits and mobilises volunteers, mainly university students in Lisbon and Porto. Each volunteer commits to working a four-hour shift every two weeks during the academic year. Second, Keep Up is a week-long programme that runs during academic holidays in Lisbon and Porto. This ensures the work from Turn Up does not stop during the holiday period. It creates revenue streams by offering international volunteering opportunities. Third, Camp In is a 12-day programme through which groups of volunteers rehabilitate four or five homes per camp, with a focus on rural areas. Finally, All In offers team-building programmes to companies that cover the costs of the rehabilitation projects in which their staff participate.

Camp In is the largest programme, accounting for the majority of JaC’s expenditure and impact. The main purpose of the project is to improve the lives and living conditions of people in housing poverty, while raising awareness of this highly vulnerable group and their needs.

Its success depends to a large extent on the strength of the partnerships fostered by JaC, particularly with universities, municipalities and local organisations. These provide the funding, materials and labour (through volunteers) required for the renovations. They also help to select beneficiaries and provide logistical support, including permits, storage, transport, management of waste generated and supplies. Companies involve their staff for team-building purposes, while construction companies donate materials and other organisations donate funds.

The programme follows a four-step implementation process. The first step involves the local network of social partners mapping and screening families living in housing poverty, from which the priority households are decided. Municipalities and local organisations work with beneficiaries to identify those living in critical situations who need support and prepare social reports to assess each case and the intervention needed.

Once the beneficiaries are selected, JaC mobilises the resources needed. About 40% of JaC’s funding for 2019 came from municipalities and local foundations, with 39% from individual and corporate donations, 19% from companies participating in team-building days, and 2% in contributions from international volunteers.

The third step is the renovation itself. Camp In runs all over the country, enabling JaC to focus on rural areas and on complementing the other urban-focused programmes. Each camp has 30 to 40 volunteers, divided into teams.

Renovations are decided on a case-by-case basis, focusing on accessibility, comfort and access to basic services, such as electricity and piped water. Each team works on one house during the intervention. Throughout the construction process, JaC focuses on creating relationships with residents and partners to enhance social impact. Residents are encouraged to take part in construction works and can make key decisions, which boosts their self-esteem and appreciation for their new house.

A 40m2 house improved by JaC costs on average US $6,821, compared to the market price of between US $30,700 and $34,100. This saving is the result of receiving pro-bono materials and expertise from the private sector, in addition to free labour from volunteers.

Working with its network of local partners, JaC ensures the changes and impact achieved during the rehabilitation work are not lost, by guaranteeing every family is contacted again and supported by social workers. JaC visit every household after one year. Further follow-up assessments are planned after five and ten years. Local organisations also provide follow-up work to help identify the root-causes of the challenges each family or person faces – such as unemployment, depression or addiction – providing a link with organisations with the specific skills to support them.

The renovations are free of charge to the households, as most of them struggle to pay for food or health expenses.

JaC is confident that their future funding streams are not at risk, despite COVID-19 and the challenges it poses. Housing poverty still exists and the pandemic highlights the importance of a home that is secure, adequate and comfortable. JaC believes that funders will place even more emphasis on housing poverty as one of the most important issues to tackle.

Social and environmental impact

The project has mobilised around 1,516 volunteers to the programme, and rehabilitated 146 homes, housing 322 people and thus changing their housing poverty status.

The houses improved are far more cost-efficient and affordable than the equivalent market rate, meaning beneficiaries can access housing improvements that would otherwise be out of their reach.

The programme encourages greater community co-operation by facilitating strong partnerships between a wide range of public and private companies. The focus on mobilising volunteers from universities and company team days, as well as the involvement of residents in the rehabilitation of their homes, brings about greater cohesion locally.

JaC minimises its ecological impact through the donation of materials and leftovers from construction sites. In addition, renovation improves the energy efficiency of houses.

So far, Camp In has involved 14 municipalities but it aims to influence all 308 over the next five years, through ambitious advocacy plans to highlight the critical issue of housing poverty.

The future

JaC plans to franchise the Camp In project in order to focus on establishing other programmes. Once the franchise has been piloted and established in Portugal, it plans to franchise in Spain and one other European country within three years – with further expansion to another two countries by 2027. Standardised procedures and training have been developed, meaning it can be consistently replicated in other locations.

JaC is also developing their advocacy work. Since 2018, it has been in dialogue with the office of the Secretary of State for Housing, advocating for a simplification of policy to provide funding where it is most needed. The organisation will convene a forum on housing poverty with other interested NGOs at a housing conference in 2021 to present their proposal to the Secretary of State.