António Bello

This description of António Bello's work was prepared when António Bello was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2018 .

Introduction

Through community-based collaborative efforts, António is enabling those who live in unsafe and/or degrading housing conditions to rehabilitate their homes and to improve their livelihood.

The New Idea

António believes that people should not have to live in extreme dangerous and decaying living conditions, and that everyone should have the access to resources and support to re-write their story within their community and home. Through Just a Change Association (JAC), Antonio works to engage at-risk populations and a surrounding support network to seize a life rehabilitation, starting by rehabilitating their home.

Through a business model and key partnerships with universities, municipalities, companies and parishes throughout Portugal, JAC ensures a constant pool of resources, know-how and volunteers to rehabilitate homes of those who cannot afford to do so.

To make sure this is a gateway for a wider life rehabilitation, António’s team places the beneficiaries as the main decision makers and contributors throughout the construction process. He also partners with local organizations to form a support network to ensure that, after the house rehabilitation is done, its residents receive help to take their life back into their own hands.

Through his collaborative approach, António is not only creating a social answer that was not available otherwise, he is also putting a hidden problem in the agendas of construction industries, decision makers, tomorrow’s leaders and public at large.

The Problem

Portugal has a very old housing stock. According to official data at least 4.7% of the Portuguese population (about 500,000 people) live in severely degraded conditions, without access to adequate sanitary or cooking facilities, insufficient heating, no water, faulty infrastructure and cockroach/mice infestations. Some (mostly in rural areas) own their houses, others (mostly in cities) pay token rents to landlords who cannot afford to take care of the house’s infrastructure due to rent control contracts that impedes them from charging market prices.

This is a hidden problem that goes unaddressed by traditional social support networks and unnoticed by the general public. Unable to afford better housing, those affected by it find themselves abandoned and imprisoned to a decaying daily reality that isolates and disempowers them. They are often ashamed to open their doors and ask for help and do not have a safe environment with the dignifying conditions to come out from their poverty vicious circles. Even if they do ask for or accept help, local social services are not able to solve things such as chronic unemployment or health problems if there isn’t basic infrastructures such as a shower or electricity.

The government’s answer to this problem is social housing, which entails building new infrastructure at very high costs and relocating the beneficiaries out of their communities. This solution covers only about 20% of the population living in severe housing precarity and often fails to put a halt to their poverty cycle, resulting often in the creation of ghettos and thus leading to increases in social problems.

Moreover, municipalities - the responsible institution for trying to eradicate poverty as the local level - have their hands tied: legally they cannot directly pay a contractor to the rehabilitate private houses. The charitable sector--which is mostly religious and historically has a assistance approach as its essence--also does not provide answers for this housing problem, focusing instead in related end-of-the-line problems such as health, unemployment and isolation. An exception to this is Habitats for Humanity, which builds on average 2 houses a year in a secondary city in the North of the country.

The Strategy

By engaging and empowering the private, citizen and public sectors, António is building a solution for the thousands of people who suffer from degraded living conditions without having the means or support to overcome those conditions.

JAC engages municipalities and parishes (the main actors in social assistance in Portugal) as the key actors in the rehabilitation process - they are the ones who indicate the individuals and families suffering from precarious living conditions and also participate in the in-depth diagnosis of their social/economic/material needs.

He is able to achieve a low cost on quality and efficient house rehabilitation work through the active contribution of the citizen and private sectors and by leveraging economies of scale. He does so by:
(1) mobilizing thousands of young volunteers through partnerships with universities;
(2) creating revenue sources to invest in the rehabilitation projects by offering international volunteering opportunities to travellers;
(3) offering team building programs to companies, who also pay for the costs of the rehabilitation projects in which their staff members participate;
(4) establishing key partnerships with construction companies (some at the european level, such as with LeRoy Merlin) to have reduced prices on materials
(5) Organizing “construction camps” on school holidays, in which volunteers work for several weeks in a row on several houses at the same time, thus speeding up the home rehabilitation processes

Through this framework, he enables municipalities to help vulnerable residents who live in degraded homes. In fact, by funding Just a Change to rehabilitate private homes in decaying conditions, municipalities go around the legal barrier that does not allow them to contract with construction companies to do so. Moreover, they pay JAC less than 50% of the costs they would have to pay to a normal construction company for the same service.

However, the rehabilitation service he offers is more than fixing the infrastructure and improving the dignity and comfort of a home in an efficient and affordable manner. Just a Change focuses on empowering the people who live there. Its volunteers are trained not only to have basic construction skills, but also to bring JAC’s spirit to the work - one of joy, hope and empathy. The residents are at the centre of the rehabilitation projects and participate actively in the whole process, prioritizing the needed improvements, making the decisions and taking part in the construction work. Moreover volunteers and residents also partake in community building activities such as cooking together, building campfires, and joining together in song in order to create more of a community feel to the process.

Moreover, to make sure housing rehabilitation is just a gateway for a wider life rehabilitation for the beneficiaries, Just a Change forms a support network around them. To do so, besides the close work with municipalities and parishes, António also establishes partnerships with local social organizations to ensure that the beneficiaries receive all needed support once the rehabilitation job is done and the volunteers leave the site. These institutions and organizations will help residents solving eventual unemployment or health situations and engage them in social events and programs, thus helping them to start a new chapter in their lives as active and included members in their community.

By using this model, JAC has so far rehabilitated more than 100 private houses and over 30 institutions such as retirement homes, orphanages and kintergartens. Since 2012 it has directly impacted the daily lives of over 900 people, who have reported that they feel safer in their homes, as their health and hygiene levels have increased. Moreover, they report feeling more confident and included in their communities, and happier about their life in general.

This project is also indirectly impacting the capacity of local social organizations and institutions to help people in a much deeper and effective way than before. This happens because, after being supported by JAC, individuals and families enjoy for the first time basic infrastructure needed to build a new life (e.g. a man who previously had no shower in his home can now think how to improve his unemployment situation by improving his hygiene and self-esteem).

Additionally, JAC is also bringing systemic impact, as it has created a new social answer in 12 Municipalities who previously could not help those in need of the basic living conditions. It has implemented long-term (4 year plus) partnerships on 4 of them and tested an emergency programme on two of them, in the aftermath of devastating fires in 2017. All partner municipalities, after working with Just a Change, recognized the need to build at the national level an urban rehabilitation department in addition to social intervention and social housing ones. In fact, one of them is already internalizing JAC’s methodology to ensure an enduring response to housing precarity in its community.

Finally, through all this articulation effort to foster collaboration around the problematic of housing precarity, Just a Change has created awareness around a previously silent and ignored problem. Its +30 partners in the construction industry gained a new perspective about the housing reality in Portugal and the importance of improving it. Its +3000 young volunteers had the chance of experiencing changing someone’s life and learn about a very challenging reality they didn’t know existed in their country - they will be the leaders of tomorrow and the ones who have the power to change frameworks and mindsets to solve this problem in the future.

Most of this impact (around 80%) was achieved in the last three years of the association, after António finished his university degree and decided to fully dedicate his time to create a business model and scale the project to a professional and systemic dimension. He has started the “Rural Portugal” program, which consists in intensive construction camps in rural areas, and has replicated the original city intervention model that had been working in Lisbon (which promotes with ongoing rehabilitation projects throughout the entire year) to Oporto, the second biggest city in Portugal.

He now intends to replicate the city model and the rural camps both in Portugal and in the rest of Europe. His current efforts to do so are in increasing both the project’s financial capacity and the pool of volunteers, by establishing new partnerships with companies and universities and exploring the full potential of the team building and international volunteering as revenue and manpower sources.

Thinking in medium to long term, Just a Change is investing in innovation to improve its efficiency, both environmentally and socially wise. After having been awarded one of the three most promising social innovation projects at the global level by Microsoft, António has established a protocol with them to develop a fast and decentralized signaling technology tool that will serve as the basis for local actors to (1) signal potential housing precarity situations and thus intervene on the prevention side, (2) have access to a map of the people living in housing precarity per municipality, allowing social services technicians to launch new calls for volunteers and (3) have access to data reports showing their social impact across time. António’s team is also leading, in partnership with a Portuguese university, an Energetic Efficiency and Renewable Energy research lab to incorporate cutting edge sustainable solutions in their construction work. For its innovative work in this front, JAC has just been recognized by Schneider Electric (in an award given in partnership with Ashoka and Enel) as one of the most promising projects in Europe to tackle fuel poverty.

In the long-term, António aims at enabling and supporting the creation of a new housing rehabilitation department at all municipalities in Portugal by influencing Portugal’s legal framework in this regard and help local actors incorporate JAC’s collaborative approach. He also wishes to replicate this model in other European cities that show similar problems due to rent control situations in decaying old houses.

The Person

António was born in a socially engaged family structured around strong Catholic values. Since a very young age, he was involved in volunteering and youth movements, some of which he eventually came to lead.

When he got to adolescence, his leader abilities were clear to his peers, who elected him director of several Catholic summer camps and university missions (social-driven project that takes university students to social intervention contexts in rural areas in Portugal). These experiences engaged him with a network of students that, just like him, wanted to take action and make a positive impact in their communities.

One day, 18-year-old António tried playing guitar in the street with a couple of friends. In the first hour they made 30€ and decided to use this money to buy dinner for a homeless man who had been enjoying their music. António and his friends felt it was incredibly easy to make a change in someone’s life simply with the small pocket change they received while having fun playing... and thus the seed for Just a Change was planted.

They went on with this experiment and gathered more and more friends to play in the street and share dinner with homeless people. However, they realized that there were already several solutions in place to provide this kind of assistance to homeless community, so they asked local institutions what social needs of poor people were being neglected in Lisbon centre. One of the institutions presented them to a family they were having difficulty to help, a family leaving in a house infested with cockroaches with falling walls, that didn’t seem to be cleaned for ages. There lived a drug addict and her old sick mother. António got profoundly touched with the situation and mobilized what was needed to help this family, which in his view had to start by cleaning and fixing their home. From this moment onwards, Just a Change defined its mission as to fix people’s homes as the gateway for a wider life rehabilitation.

When António graduated from his studies in Industrial Engineering, he got a job offer in SONAE. At this moment he had to make a decision: should he pass the direction of Just a Change to a new group of University freshmen who could keep leading its activities in a volunteering basis, or should he turn down a business career to fully commit to professionalize and scale Just a Change’s capacity and impact? By then, more and more social institutions were referencing families living in terrible conditions and with no chance of getting help in improving them. This led António to take the risk and work to build a new business model and design the project in a more systemic and structured way.

During this year, someone filmed a video of a rehabilitation project that became one of JAC’s most powerful success cases. It featured a man called Álvaro, who lived in complete isolation without a toilet or running water, in a room infested with cockroaches and mice and who never spoke to anyone or let anyone help him. During Just a Change’s intervention, Álvaro started little by little engaging with the volunteers and getting excited about his life change. After JAC finished the job, he started taking care of his hygiene and appearance, became a volunteer to help rehabilitate the houses of his neighbors and became an active member in his community.

This showcase was the turning point in Just a Change - as it catched the attention and interest of a big sponsor that granted 70.000€ to help setting it up. From then on, a professional team was hired and managed to secure new sources of revenue to assure the projects sustainability and growth.

António is now 27 years old. References consulted in this application process included two experts in social entrepreneurship in Portugal, who characterized him as a “charismatic, trustworthy, extremely kind and selfless” social innovation leader with a big potential.