Finland’s ‘Housing First’ policy proves that homelessness is avoidable

Finland's ‘Housing First' policy proves that homelessness is avoidable

There are currently approximately 5,500 homeless people in Finland, a country of approximately 5.5 million people.

(AP/Ted S. Warren)
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Rita Lahtinen, 54, moved into her own home in April after seven years in temporary shelters. “It’s changed my life,” she says. The sun shines through big windows into the one-room flat in Helsinki, the Finnish capital. One corner hosts a small kitchen, and there is a big desk with her artwork, a sofa and a bed. Most of the furniture is second-hand, although some of it is new.

“It is hard to do any kind of demanding work if you are living in a shelter. Although you can sleep there and wash yourself and your clothes every day, if your work needs you to think, it’s hard. It’s just so restless there,” she explains. “Everyone is just waiting to get into accommodation. If you’re lucky you can get into private rented accommodation, but most of us have no or poor credit history,” says Lahtinen, a former publican who was left owing hundreds of thousands of euros in tax when she sold her business in 2002, which sent her into a downward spiral of debt and homelessness.

Because waiting lists are long, Rita’s story of spending years in different shelters is not unique. However, Finland is working to change this. It is currently the only country in Europe where homelessness is on the decline, thanks to a policy called ‘Housing First’.

The idea is simple: everyone is entitled to somewhere to live, even people with complex psychosocial, health and financial issues such as addiction or poor credit ratings. The theory is that it is easier to tackle the multiple issues often faced by a person experiencing homelessness if that person has a stable home.

Juha Kaakinen is the CEO of the Finnish affordable rental housing provider Y-Foundation, which has over 17,000 apartments in cities and municipalities across Finland. As head of the fourth largest landlord in Finland, Kaakinen has been involved in developing the so-called ‘Finnish model’ since its genesis. In 2007, Finland’s then Housing Minister, Jan Vapaavuori, set up a working group to come up with a solution to long-term homelessness that was not being tackled by existing approaches to the issue.

Kaakinen, who was secretary of the working group, tells Equal Times: “The principle is that everyone can live independently with the right support. It is to give people a permanent home and get rid of the temporary accommodation model. Temporary accommodation does not offer much in terms of building a stable life."

The Finnish model has four principles. Firstly, that permanent housing enables people to live independently. Secondly, that people can choose how to engage with services, and completely giving up intoxicants is not required – instead, the approach is one of harm reduction that respects the person’s autonomy. Thirdly, staff meet clients as equals and aim to build trust and empower them. The fourth principle is to support people’s integration into their community and helping them build strong networks.

Different models

The Finnish model was born separately from a model in the United States that carries the same name. Housing First was first developed in New York in the early 1990s by an organisation called Pathways to Housing in response to the needs of people with mental health issues. It has since been rolled out in several cities, including in New Orleans after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina doubled the numbers of homeless people in the city.

Although the principles are similar, the key differences are that in Finland, support is tailored more individually around the needs of the resident, and this is made possible due to the higher standard of public social services. Residents also pay their rent themselves and are eligible for housing allowance like any Finn, although NGOs are involved in running the housing units. In the US, the organisation that has arranged the housing bears responsibility for the rent and deducts it directly from the resident’s income.

Finland’s Housing First is based on co-operation between the state, city councils and third sector organisations. For example, Rita Lahtinen’s tenancy contract is with the City of Helsinki, but the supported housing unit where she lives is managed by VVA (Vailla Vakinaista Asuntoa, or No Fixed Abode), an NGO that works to provide and improve services for the homeless.

Lahtinen finds the support indispensable, even though she is now doing well and is due to start part-time work in an art project after the summer. “This has been like a springboard for me,” she says.

There are currently approximately 5,500 homeless people in Finland, a country of approximately 5.5 million people. Most of them are sofa-surfing with friends and family; the number of street homeless is only in the hundreds. This relatively low number is a result of co-operation between different actors that started in 1980s even before the Housing First model was developed: according to Y-Foundation, in the last 30 years over 12,000 people have been housed.

VVA helps those in immediate need: they run a night centre and other low threshold services. The lived experience of homeless people is at the heart of everything they do, but demand is higher than their capacity. One fast growing group of homeless people is immigrants, as it is hard to access services in Finland if one is not registered with a municipality. In addition, language barriers can prevent people from knowing their rights, while prejudice makes it harder to get work or housing with a foreign name.

“The Housing First model has brought a lot of good, but in the last few years we have seen that there are more people in the most vulnerable positions,” explains Erja Morottaja from VVA. “There are younger and younger people in a worse condition than before, often with background in children’s services, having fallen through several safety nets.” Finland suffered a deep economic depression in the early 1990s, bringing mass unemployment, poverty and cuts to welfare services. This era of austerity left an indelible mark on those who grew up during this time, which is apparent even today.

Even if welfare systems differ, Morottaja believes the Housing First principle can be applied in other countries. “A home is a human right. That is the starting point, wherever you are. The question is just how to make that happen,” she reflects. Importantly, VVA believes those with lived experience need to be at the heart of developing solutions.

International interest

International interest in the Housing First policy is growing, and the model has been trialled across Europe. According to Kaakinen, the difference between many of the trials in other countries and the Finnish policy is that in Finland, Housing First is not a project but a wholesale change to the country’s housing policy. Scotland is now moving towards it becoming a national policy objective, and in Denmark, the model has also been expanded. However, in most countries “statistics show that a temporary shelter is the primary offer. This is combined with the fact that there is no social housing or housing benefit system,” according to Kaakinen.

FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless, has listed the level of progress towards Housing First as a public policy intervention, finding that it varies from the Finnish model to government-funded large-scale national experiments such as in Belgium, France and Italy, and local experiments that either have serious political support like in Spain and Ireland, or those which lack support, such as in Hungary.

According to a 2016 European Commission report, results from Housing First roll-outs are mostly positive. Where there are mixed results, it has mainly to do with two questions: the level of support the project has received, and whether housing should be scattered or congregated in supported units like Lahtinen’s. Advocates worry that the latter concentrates problems in one area and can stigmatise residents.

“Failures nearly always have to do with there not being enough support,” says Kaakinen. “For some people, it works to live alone, some need the support that a community brings. There is no one size fits all. The same goes for support: if one needs, for example, treatment for addiction, walls are not enough. You need people.”

Morottaja from VVA says there are no easy fixes to the problems that differ between countries. “But there is a common thread of there not being enough homes and them being too expensive. Housing is big business, and governments need to make sure they build affordable housing too.”