Lessons from Finland: helping homeless.
Lessons from Finland: helping homeless people starts with giving them homes.
Sounds simple but Finland’s housing first model shows it’s always more cost-effective to try to end homelessness rather than manage it
‘It should go without saying that you can’t offer homeless people homes if the homes do not exist.’ Photograph: Marja Väänänen/Courtesy of Helsinki City Museum.
A recent report by the communities and local government committee on homelessness pointed out that the “housing first” model “appears to have had a positive impact in Finland”. From 2008 to 2014 the number of people who were long-term homeless decreased by approximately 1,200, and homelessness continues to decrease. However, the conclusion of the committee is puzzling: “We are cautious about investing further in housing first in England because of the severity of England’s homelessness challenge and the scarcity of funding and of social housing.” This certainly requires some further comments.
The housing first model is quite simple: when people are homeless, you give them housing first – a stable home, rather than progressing them through several levels of temporary and transitional accommodation. The idea stems from the belief that people who are homeless need a home, and other issues that may cause them to be at risk of homelessness can be addressed once they are in stable housing. Homeless people aren’t told they must conquer their addictions or secure a job before being given a home: instead it is accepted that having a home can make solving health and social problems much easier.
Finland is the only European country where homelessness has decreased in recent years. At the end of 2015 the number of single homeless people was for the first time under 7,000 and this number includes people living temporarily with friends and relatives, who constitute 80% of all homeless people. This development is mainly due to a national programme to reduce long-term homelessness.
The main explanation for this success is quite simple: when the national programme started housing first was adopted as a mainstream national homelessness policy. This common framework made it possible to establish a wide partnership of state authorities, local communities and non-governmental organisations. Cooperation and targeted measures in the implementation of the programme led to the aforementioned results, which were backed up by independent international evaluations.
Implementing housing first is not reasonable without proper housing options. It should go without saying that you can’t offer homeless people homes if the homes do not exist. It is this scarcity of homes that engenders the system in Britain, with demand outstripping supply, and people in crisis forced to jump through hoops to avoid sleeping on the street.
In Finland, housing options included the use of social housing, buying flats from the private market to be used as rental apartments for homeless people, and building new housing blocks for supported housing. An important part of the programme was the extensive conversion of shelters and dormitory-type hostels into supported housing, to address the huge need for accommodation that offered help to tenants. The last big hostel for homeless people in Helsinki with 250 bed places was run by the Salvation Army. A couple of years ago this hostel was renovated and now consists of 80 independent apartments with on-site staff. The disappearance of temporary solutions like hostels has completely changed the landscape of Finnish homelessness policy in a very positive way, for vulnerable individuals and in combatting antisocial behaviour.
All this costs money, but there is ample evidence from many countries that shows it is always more cost-effective to aim to end homelessness instead of simply trying to manage it. Investment in ending homelessness always pays back, to say nothing of the human and ethical reasons.
To get the most out of housing first in terms of social and economic benefits it needs to be mainstream homelessness policy, not just individual pilot projects. Housing first needs housing stock and there is no real homeless policy without the housing supply to implement it. The cornerstone of any decent housing policy is the sufficient supply of affordable social housing. Especially in these times of economic scarcity building new housing is an economically wise and value-creating investment with positive side-effects ranging from reducing youth unemployment to boosting the local economy.
To say that the scarcity of funding in any western European country is the reason for lack of affordable social housing is either an understatement or a conscious misunderstanding. It is simply a question of political will.
Juha Kaakinen is chief executive of the Y-Foundation.
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