Coming out of homelessness – what doesn’t work?

Surveys show that the number of homeless has been falling systematically for years now. Last year there were about 30 thousand homeless people in Poland, which is nearly 6 thousand less than in 2015. It cannot be judged, though, if this is the outcome of actions taken by the state or there are other reasons behind. According to NIK, the system of actions taken by the central- and local government bodies as well as non-government organisations does not work. It is neither consistent nor effective: it fails to activate the homeless and thus does not help these people to start a new, independent life.

Amendments to the Act on Social Assistance of 2016 which aimed to strengthen such activity do not bring about expected results. Institutions obliged to help homeless people focus mainly on satisfying their basic needs – shelter and food, or essential clothing. From 2016 to 2018, only one in 34 audited institutions and organisations (Caritas of the Archdiocese of Katowice) complied with its legal tasks, including the ones helping the homeless get independent.

Moreover, apart from a few exceptions, the auditees did not analyse how effective their actions were. It means they did not have full knowledge of whether their actions bring about desired effects and if the money earmarked for that purpose is spent properly. The NIK audit revealed not only objective obstacles which made it difficult to provide legal and effective assistance. Also, the entities providing that assistance did not always comply with the provisions of law.  

According to the data of the Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Policy provided every two years, the following amounts were spent on the homeless assistance from public funds:

  • in 2016over PLN 224.6 million,
  • in 2018nearly PLN 271 million.

More than 90% of those amounts were transferred by local governments, e.g. to finance the activity of entities providing assistance to the homeless, and also to finance social benefits and others.  

In the audited period the Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Policy as part of two programmes allocated over PLN 23 million to finance activities aimed to contain homelessness and help the homeless:

  • over PLN 12 million for the Programme helping to solve the homelessness issue (from 2016 to 2017),
  • over PLN 11 million for the programme: Overcoming homelessness. The homeless assistance programme  (until the end of 2018).

Thanks to these programmes, non-government organisations received subsidies, e.g. to support social and professional integration as well as activation of the homeless in the local environment, improve standards of their day and night stay in shelters or doss-houses and to support preventive and protective measures.

The governors covered by the audit spent nearly PLN 4.4 million on projects to help the homeless from 2016 to 2018.  

Homelessness in Poland

It is not very often that homelessness of a given person is caused by a single factor. Most frequently it is the outcome of various (often overlapping) factors – unemployment, poverty, family breakdown, addictions, domestic violence, debts and eviction, or personality disorders.

According to the data of the Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Policy an absolute majority of homeless persons stayed in special institutions, dedicated to the homeless: in 2019 – about 80%, earlier, in 2017:a little above 72%, in 2015 - 71%. The graphics below shows how the number of the homeless spread across Poland in 2019:

Map of Poland with the number of homeless in individual provinces

In 2014, the Polish government adopted The National Programme against Poverty and Social Exclusion 2020. A new dimension of social integration. In 2016 significant amendments were made to the Act on Social Assistance. The changes were to help the homeless get independent and overcome homelessness. It is hard to tell if the government actions were successful. Since it was not obligatory to gather and analyse information about the support provided to homeless persons, the available data is incomplete.

That is why NIK has requested that the Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Policy should commit social welfare centres and non-government organisations providing temporary homeless shelter to gather and analyse such information.

Administrative decisions and social contracts

Pursuant to the Act on Social Assistance, a homeless person goes to a shelter based on the administrative decision issued by a social welfare centre. But first, this person should have the background survey made (which makes it possible to place such a person in an entity tailored to his or her dysfunction) and sign the social contract. NIK found that nearly ¼ of audited social welfare centres did not issue administrative decisions, relying on verbal arrangements. Five in 17 social welfare centres did not conduct background surveys at all.

A crucial point in procedures related to homeless assistance is that social welfare centres need to conclude social contracts with such persons (except for extraordinary situations). They single out activities to overcome a difficult life situation (and thus come out of homelessness) of the persons seeking help. In the audited period, 13 in 17 social welfare centres signed social contracts with the homeless (two centres started to do that only in 2018). According to NIK, 11 social welfare centres developed documents properly. They took account of the needs of persons requesting help who actively participated in the documents’ preparation. NGOs providing shelter to the homeless had to identify those persons’ needs on their own, though. Social welfare centres did not transfer any background surveys or social contracts to those organisations, saying that effective law does not allow them to do so.

Social workers who signed contracts with homeless persons did not have any impact on their implementation. They could not even say if they were implemented or not (especially if the person was staying in a shelter run by an NGO and the shelter was located very far from the social welfare centre). On the other hand, caregivers working in such shelters did not know the contract content and so they could not tell if the homeless who finally go there meet the contract obligations.

Persons running social welfare centres or operating in non-government organisations say that in many cases the contracting obligation simply cannot be met. Rigid compliance with the law would fail to provide assistance to the ones who need it most, e.g. persons who come to the shelter straight from the street. In this case, you have to focus on satisfying their most urgent needs, such as providing shelter, a warm meal, and clothing. Filling in the documentation would delay these activities a lot. Besides, it is hard to expect from a person in such a difficult life situation to sign a social contract with full understanding.

Therefore, NIK has moved to the Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Policy to change the provisions so that the social contract be concluded only after placing the homeless person in a shelter (e.g. within 2 weeks). NIK is of the opinion that this change would speed up the process of providing assistance to the homeless person. It would also enable social workers to identify the person’s needs and develop a personalised social contract for him or her. NIK has also recommended that the principles of cooperation between social welfare centres and non-government organisations should be defined, particularly the ones concerning the provision of background surveys and social contracts.

According to NIK both of these institutions should develop individual transition from homelessness programmes on a broader scale. In the audited period they were developed by 4 in 11 shelter-running NGOs covered by the planned audit (about 36.5%) and only 2 in 12 audited social welfare centres (less than 17%). In the audited period, more than 1.6 thousand programmes were developed. 

NIK stands in the position that the transition from the homelessness programme should represent another tool for social work with the homeless, even more personalised than the contract. Otherwise, these two forms of assistance would be indistinguishable in the Act.

Protective programmes are in place but their effectiveness is questionable

The Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Policy defined the concepts and directions related to homelessness, provided inspiration, and promoted new forms and methods of operation. Two programmes were developed in the Ministry to contain homelessness, e.g. by stimulating independence of homeless persons, protecting their health and life and improving living standards of the institutions where they are staying.

As part of those programmes, by the end of 2018, the Ministry spent nearly 23.3 million to support the NGOs’ activities for the homeless. The problem is that the Ministry failed to monitor the implementation of those programmes on an on-going basis. The audit covered only two in 117 contracts signed from 2016 to 2017 (1.7%) which totalled PLN 290 thousand (2.4% of granted subsidies). That is why the Ministry lacked credible information on whether the funds were used properly.

The Ministry did not coordinate or supervise the implementation of the National Programme against Poverty and Social Exclusion 2020. A new dimension of active integration. That is why the Ministry did not have full knowledge about the way planned tasks were performed. The Ministry failed to found the National Research Platform which was, among others, to gather information and formulate recommendations concerning the programme update as well as changes in its implementation.

By not analysing the effectiveness of actions taken for the homeless the Ministry breached the Act on Social Assistance. According to NIK, although there is no legal obligation in that matter, the Ministry should prepare special criteria to evaluate the effectiveness of actions properly.  

The Ministry did not monitor the quality of services offered by homeless shelters, homeless shelters with caregiving services, doss-houses, and warming centres. As a consequence, the Ministry did not know how many of those facilities needed adjustment to the standards defined in the ordinances and what funds were needed for that purpose.  

The NIK audit revealed than more than half (14 in 27) of audited facilities providing temporary shelter did not meet the standards related to facilities of this type (twelve of them still can improve their living conditions by the end of this year).

Two NGOs made agreements and arrangements with the social welfare centres to provide a doss-house, a warming centre and a homeless shelter with caregiving services without actually being able to provide those services in line with the effective standards.

Given the above, NIK has moved to the Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Policy to monitor and audit adequacy of expenditure incurred as part of the Ministry programmes. NIK is also of the opinion that the Ministry should add the provision obliging social welfare centres and NGOs to evaluate the effectiveness of the homeless assistance. NIK has also requested that the Ministry should monitor the quality of services provided by the temporary shelter facilities. At the same time, the governors should conduct an audit of the service level. The Ministry has been also recommended to further specify the provisions concerning the analysis of the effectiveness of social assistance provided, as well as the effectiveness criteria and the date of preparing analyses. According to NIK, more precise provisions will allow gathering standardised, comparable, and credible information about activities taken for the homeless.

Shelter for the homeless

Province Offices also lacked full knowledge of homeless assistance. The registers of facilities where municipalities provided temporary shelter, available on the Offices’ websites, were incomplete, although the statutory deadline for their preparation expired. NIK has pointed out that without complete data the governors could not effectively supervise the assistance.

The registers showed that in 2018 the following facilities were in operation in the provinces audited by NIK:

  • 94 homeless shelters,
  • 5 homeless shelters with caregiving services,
  • 43 doss-houses,
  • 23 warming centres.

Though, against the Act on Social Assistance, none of 17 audited social welfare centres was prepared to provide the homeless with temporary shelter in all 4 forms.

In the area of audited provinces, 95 in 585 municipalities provided no shelter to the homeless.

The audited social welfare centres provided temporary shelter in facilities located even a few hundred kilometres from the centre. That was not illegal but made it impossible to perform on-going social work with subjects of the social welfare centres as well as execute tasks defined in the contracts.

NIK has also stressed incomplete education of audited shelters’ heads. 75% of them did not meet statutory requirements: they did not have major in the organisation of social assistance or lacked required seniority in social assistance (at least 3 years). Caregivers must have secondary education minimum and undergo first aid training. Only 6 in 27 facilities covered by the audit met the requirements on hiring the defined number of social workers and caregivers as well as their qualifications. Twenty-one facilities still have the time to adopt the provisions by the year-end.

Fees for temporary shelter charged at the municipalities’ choice

Homeless persons may stay in the shelter even for a few years, although they sign a contract that should help them get independent. In line with the Act on Social Assistance, the principles of paying for the stay in shelters are defined in the resolutions passed by individual municipalities.  NIK auditors have found that in the audited period the Councils of 9 in 12 municipalities set out detailed principles of charging fees in the shelters (of which 7 passed relevant resolutions only in the period 2017-2018). In 3 municipalities the resolutions were not passed at all.

From 2016 to 2018, 1 375 homeless persons staying in a social welfare centre in Bydgoszcz, paid directly on the shelter’s account the total of PLN 6.2 million. It was against the law because the facility shifted the obligation to charge fees to an NGO running that facility.

It was also against the law that 4 social welfare centres granted 187 persons designated benefits totalling about PLN 211 thousand. The money was allocated to cover the costs of the persons’ stay in the shelter but it was transferred to the facility managing authorities, passing over the homeless persons. It posed the risk of double-financing of the costs of the homeless’ stay in the shelters.

As many as 9 in 11 audited NGOs running the shelters (nearly 82%) charged fees for stays directly from the homeless sent to them, which was against the law. Seven NGOs co-financed the costs of stay from the benefits granted to the homeless, paid directly on the accounts of the organisations running the facilities, passing over the homeless. It was also illegal.

Hence, NIK has moved to the social welfare centres to finance the costs of providing temporary shelter to the homeless in line with the effective provisions of the law. NIK has also recommended that NGOs should not charge fees for the stay in the shelter directly from homeless persons who were sent there by social welfare centres or co-financed by the social welfare centres.



Article informations

Date of creation:
03 August 2020 09:59
Date of publication:
03 August 2020 09:59
Published by:
Marta Połczyńska
Date of last change:
03 August 2020 09:59
Last modified by:
Marta Połczyńska
damaged, abandoned building Material from NIK audit: a shelter for homeless women operated by the Field Committee on Children's Rights Protection in Inowrocław

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