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“Loans and benefits cause a loss of autonomy – and people in poverty want to avoid that at all costs,” says Riane Kuzee-Hoogeveen. She explains from her own experience why apparently financially beneficial decisions, such as buying solar panels, are not obvious to people in poverty. These and many more lessons prove to be worth their weight in gold for politicians in municipalities and housing associations to involve people living in poverty in the energy transition.

In October, Platform31 organized the two-day masterclass Energy transition, poverty and behaviour in Roermond. During the masterclass, participants from Limburg’s municipalities and housing associations examined the connection between the energy transition and poverty, and the role that behavior plays in this. The soaring energy prices make it even more urgent to get knowledge and inspiration to tackle energy poverty.

A passionate story about poverty

Under the guidance of various experts, all aspects of an effective approach were discussed – from behavioral psychology to funding issues. However, what impressed many participants the most was the interview with Riane Kuzee-Hoogeveen. She is an expert on poverty. By telling her story, she managed to take the participants into the world of experience of people living in poverty; she offered them insight into and perspective on the relationship with residents on a limited budget.

When Platform31 talks to her again a month after the masterclass, Riane tells her story with the same enthusiasm as in Roermond. According to her, there is still much to gain in the relationship between public institutions and people in poverty when it comes to openness, vulnerability and leaving behind prejudices. Ultimately, she argues, people should be approached with humanity.

Ryan knows what she’s talking about. After fleeing her abusive and schizophrenic husband years ago with her daughter and pets, she had to rebuild her life at a secret address in a village at the top of Groningen, far away from her old home in Randstad. The traumas from the past and her daughter’s upbringing stood in the way of getting paid work for a long time.

Poverty is not just a lack of money

Despite this, Riane found in the village the social control and calm she needed to feel safe. She volunteered to contribute to society. This led to training as an experience expert, which she followed on the advice of the municipality’s employment consultant. “We can build bridges across the gap between rich and poor,” Riane says of her work. “In this way, people ‘on the other side’ gain insight into our housing environment, so that you can connect with each other.”

And that is needed. According to Riane, there is still a taboo on poverty; it’s something people don’t talk about easily. She explains that poverty is not just a lack of money. “Poverty is a lack of something you really need,” she sums up her position succinctly. “It could be security, it could be a roof over your head or a lack of security.” Mistrust is then a natural attitude. That is why, according to Riane, it is so important to build trust before proposing solutions. She believes it would help a lot if social workers and counselors understood this fundamental aspect of poverty better – and acted accordingly.

She experienced for herself how important empathy is in contact with a consultant from the municipality. Instead of spending a lot of effort on a long bus ride and arranging a babysitter for an appointment at the town hall, the consultant suggested that she visit Riane. This suggestion made a world of difference to her. “She didn’t stop by to check on me, just to see if I was okay. That’s what I needed, too.”

Prohibitive despite simple calculation

Riane now also applies this empathy in her own work for the Sterk Uit Armoede foundation. “You hear us, but you also listen,” was a compliment she once received from a client. She therefore encourages municipalities and other institutions to set an example here. Tailored solutions are needed to help people living in poverty. Especially when it comes to making housing more sustainable, which after all requires a lot of money.

Loans and repayment periods are excluded. For Riane, taking out a loan means losing autonomy, something that is very valuable to her. As simple as the math is, and as much as the returns can be, having to make investments first is an insurmountable risk for many people in poverty that they don’t want to take. Just as a child benefit parent will think twice before applying for subsidies.

Energy coach or energy explorer

Furthermore, the choice of words plays an important role here. The use of an energy coach meets resistance from Riane because she gets the feeling that someone (the coach) is imposing on her how to handle energy from above. During the master class Energy transition, poverty and behaviour she was therefore pleased to hear that one of the municipalities present used the term ‘energy explorer’. This is a neutral term that does not imply a power relationship.

For example, there were several moments for both Riane and the participants in the master class where their eyes were opened and together they could learn how people see the energy transition and poverty differently. Riane’s most important lesson for municipalities and housing associations is at least simple: “Participate in an open and honest conversation. Leave your prejudices at home and dare to be vulnerable.” Not only because it is more comfortable for both the resident and the consultant or official, but also because it works better.

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