Shelter for all in need

24 September 2020 | Posted In: #136 Spring 2020, Homelessness,

In Finland, the number of homeless people has fallen sharply. The reason? As Kathrin Glosel explains, it’s because the country has applied a revolutionary new housing concept.

In 2008, you could see tent villages and huts standing between trees in the parks of Helsinki. Homeless people — with nowhere else to go — had built makeshift homes in the middle of Finland’s capital city, exposing them to harsh weather conditions.

Since the 1980s, Finnish governments have been trying desperately to reduce homelessness. In response, short term shelters were built. However, there were too few emergency shelters and the long-term homeless still found themselves left out in the cold. They couldn’t find jobs without a housing address. And without employment, they couldn’t find accommodation. It was a vicious circle in which homeless people found themselves trapped.

But in 2008, the Finnish government introduced a new policy for the homeless called “Housing First”. Since then, the number of people affected by homelessness has fallen sharply. So much so, that today, Finland is the only EU country where the number of homeless people is declining.

In Finland, it is NGOs such as the Y-Foundation that provide housing for people in need. The organisation takes care of the construction of the units, the purchase of the properties, and the renovation of existing flats. In addition, former emergency shelters have been converted into apartments in order to provide long-term housing.

The Y-Foundation receives discounted loans from the state to buy the housing stock. It is also supported by the Finnish lottery and receives regular loans from banks. The NGO later uses the rental income to repay these loans. “We had to get rid of the night shelters and short-term hostels,” says Juha Kaakinen, director of the Y-Foundation. “They had a very long history in Finland, and everyone could see they were not getting people out of homelessness. The old system wasn’t working; we needed radical change.”

Housing First is indeed radical. It reverses the conventions of traditional homeless programs i.e. those affected are expected to look for a job and free themselves from their psychological problems or addictions before they
can begin to receive help in finding accommodation. Housing First, on the other hand, provides homeless people with a unit without any preconditions. With Housing First, homeless people become tenants with a tenancy agreement. They pay rent and operating costs. Social workers, who have offices in the residential buildings, provide counselling and help with financial issues such as applications for social benefits.

The scheme doesn’t come cheap. In the past ten years, more than €270 million has been spent on the Housing First program. However, as Kaakinen points out, this is far less than the cost of homelessness itself. When people are in emergency situations, they are likely to suffer assaults, injuries, and breakdowns. This results in the police, healthcare and justice systems being called upon to step in to help — which all comes at a price.  When the sums were done, Housing First was found to cost €15,000 less per year per homeless person than before.

And the outcomes are impressive: during the past decade, the Housing First policy has provided 4,600 new homes in Finland, with four out of five homeless people settling into their accommodation over the long-term. While Housing First hasn’t quite solved homelessness completely — at the last count in 2017 there were still about 1,900 people living rough in Finland — the policy has freed-up enough places for people to stay in emergency shelters so that they at least don’t have to brave the inclement weather anymore.

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