Finland’s Solution To Homelessness; Could It Work In The UK?
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
On Monday, a snippet of news from a local radio station informed me that a homeless man had been found dead in the doorway of a shop on Exeter’s Cathedral Green. The man, who has not yet been named, is thought to have been sleeping rough in Exeter for some time.
In England last year, around 4800 people were estimated to be sleeping rough, a figure that is 15% higher than in 2016 and more than double the estimate for 2010 (Full Fact).
Local authorities, charities and communities have come together in recent years to support rough sleepers. Following the deaths of two homeless men in Manchester, people took to the streets to march in support of the city’s homeless with the message ‘No more deaths on our streets’. Across the UK, charity or local authority funded night shelters have been arranged for the colder months, including Exeter’s Junction. Despite this, our city has suffered another death on the streets and our country does not have a fixed strategy for tackling homelessness or an intervention strategy to prevent homelessness.
Homelessness is by no means limited to the UK as rates rise across Europe. Finland, however, seems to be the exception to the trend.
In 1987, there were around 18,000 homeless people in the country. In 2017, there were 7112, of which only 415 were living on the streets or in emergency shelters with the rest staying temporarily with friends or relatives. Between 2008 and 2015, the number of people experiencing long-term homelessness dropped by 35%. (Huffington Post)
So what is Finland doing differently to the UK and the rest of Europe? Perhaps it is their very definition of homelessness;
“a housing problem and a violation of fundamental rights, both solvable, and not as an inevitable social problem resulting from personal issues.”
From this idea comes a simple concept; to solve homelessness, you start by giving someone a home. This offer isn’t just for a temporary placement, instead a permanent, no strings attached home is offered where the occupant can take drugs and drink if they want to, or they can receive free support for treating addiction, mental health and other problems. Services are also offered to help people get back on their feet, including securing welfare paperwork or applying for a job.
Finland’s housing is drastically different to the rest of Europe; a mix of designated standard apartments are placed through the community along with supported housing. This housing consists of apartment blocks with on-site services that have been built or renovated specifically for chronically homeless people.
Those who are formerly homeless have a rental contract just like anyone else, paid through the money received from a salary or welfare from Finland’s relatively generous welfare state.
Many homeless programs and housing systems enforce a ban on substances as a precondition to receiving accommodation and support. Critics have spoken out about this approach and it’s ‘one chance’ nature which ultimately sets the recipient up for failure. Heli Alkila, service area director at Helsinki Deaconess Institute (HDI), a Finnish non-profit that provides social services said:
“If something happens and you aren’t successful, like it always happens, it’s the nature of addiction, then you are back on the street.”
Juha Kaakinen, an architect of the housing first approach and CEO of the non-profit Y-Foundation, explained that Finland’s approach ultimately comes down to values.
“The Finnish attitude is that we have to help people who are in the most difficult position, whatever the reason they have become homeless.
“We understand very well that the main reasons behind homelessness are structural reasons.”
Finland’s success at cutting homelessness has attracted a huge amount of international attention and Kaakinen attributes part of Finland’s success to politics, saying:
“There has to be some individual politician who has the social consciousness.”
For Finland, this was Jan Vapaavuori, who is now Helsinki’s mayor. Before this, Vapaavuori was the housing minister and he drove the housing first approach. Since then, politicians of all affiliations have continued to support the approach.
This project has taken more than just central government to make it a reality. A collaboration had to be formed between the major cities of Finland as well as businesses, NGOs and even state-owned gambling company Veikkaus whose profits go to social causes.
There is no escaping the fact that building, buying and renting houses for homeless people, as well as providing the vital support services, is expensive. However, studies have found that housing one long-term homeless person saves society around €15,000 (£13,200) a year due to a reduction in their use of services such as hospital emergency rooms, police and criminal justice systems.
The housing first system is not without its critics, with some arguing that this approach normalises substance abuse and provides free housing to those who are continuing to make bad choices. Akila argued against those that criticise HDI and the other non-profits out there, saying:
“Drugs are here, all these things are here, and we are just trying. It’s a human dignity question, you have to have a place to stay.”
None of the housing first advocates suggest that the approach is perfect; it, like any other system, has its problems and limitations. Akila continued:
“Maybe it’s not perfect, maybe it’s not the dream you had when you were young but this is your own place.”
Denmark, Canada, Australia and the US have joined Finland in following a housing first approach. Brenda Rosen, CEO of Breaking Ground, a homelessness NGO that operates across New York and Connecticut argued against critics who say that people should address their issues before they get housing:
“We fundamentally feel that that is backwards … rather than expending all your energy and trying to get through each and every day and figure out how you will eat your meals and survive another night through a cold winter, the most decent, humane and cost-effective way is to bring folks inside.”
In Finland, there are still challenges as the demographic of homelessness is changing with women now making up 23% of homeless people due to domestic violence and increased use of substances. Some young people, too, are finding it hard to get a foot on the property ladder when affordable housing is so scarce. Sanna Tiivola from the non-profit No Fixed Abode explained:
“We didn’t solve homelessness, we solved some part of it.”
However when she goes to other countries and sees their heavy reliance on emergency shelters as a solution, she always questions why this system is still in place. She sees a “visible change” in Finland and explains “that’s why I think people say that Finland solved homelessness.”