Finland Virtually Ends Homelessness, Providing Shelter For All In Need

By Kathrin Glösel
November 14, 2019

Additional reporting and editing by SNEWS.

English translation from original text provided by
[Read this article in German here.]

In Finland, the number of homeless people has plummeted sharply. The reason: The country applies the “Housing First” concept. Those afflicted by homelessness receive a state-funded small apartment and counseling right away — without any preconditions. This has allowed 4 out of 5 people affected thus to make their way back into a stable life. Plus, all this is cheaper than continuing to tolerate and accept homelessness.

Finland is the only country in Europe where homelessness is in decline

In 2008, you could see tent villages and huts standing between trees in the parks of Helsinki. Homeless people had built makeshift homes in the middle of Finland’s capital city. They were exposed to harsh weather conditions.

Since the 1980s, Finnish governments had been trying to reduce homelessness. Short-term shelters were built. However, long-term homeless people were still left out. There were too few emergency shelters and many affected people did not manage to get out of homelessness: They couldn’t find jobs – without a stable residential address. And without any job, they couldn’t find a flat. It was a vicious circle, like a catch-22. Furthermore, they had problems applying for social benefits. All in all, homeless people found themselves perpetually trapped.

But in 2008 the Finnish government introduced a new policy for the homeless: It started implementing the “Housing First” concept. Since then, the number of people affected by housing insecurity has fallen sharply.

Finland has set itself a target: Nobody should have to live on the streets – every citizen should have a residence.

And the country is successful: It is the only EU country where the number of homeless people is actually declining.

How everyone is given residence in Finland

It is NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) such as the “Y-Foundation” that provide housing for people in need. They take care of the construction themselves, buy flats on the private housing market and renovate existing flats. The apartments have one to two rooms. In addition to that, former emergency shelters have been converted into apartments in order to offer long-term housing.

“It was clear to everyone that the old system wasn’t working; we needed radical change,” says Juha Kaakinen, Director of the Y-Foundation.

Homeless people turn into tenants with a tenancy agreement. They also have to pay rent and operating costs. Social workers, who have offices in the residential buildings, help with financial issues such as applications for social benefits.

Juha Kaakinen is head of the Y-Foundation. The NGO receives discounted loans from the state to buy housing. Additionally, social workers caring for the homeless and future tenants are paid by the state. The Finnish lottery, on the other hand, supports the NGO when it buys apartments on the private housing market. The Y-Foundation also receives regular loans from banks. The NGO later uses the rental income to repay the loans.

“We had to get rid of the night shelters and short-term hostels we still had back then. They had a very long history in Finland, and everyone could see they were not getting people out of homelessness. We decided to reverse the assumptions.” — Juha Kaakinen, Director of the Y-Foundation

That’s how the “Housing First” concept works

The policy applied in Finland is called “Housing First”. It reverses conventional homeless aid. More commonly, those afflicted are expected to prove they are “worthy” of help (not lazy, drug-addled bums trying to leech off the system) by actively seeking a job and freeing themselves from their psychological problems or addictions through sheer willpower, hard work and perseverance. Only then will they be eligible to receive help in finding safe and stable accommodations.

“Housing First”, on the other hand, reverses this usual path: Homeless people are provided with a flat – without any preconditions. Social workers help them with applications for social benefits and are available for counseling in general. In such a new, secure situation, it is easier for those affected to find a job and take care of their physical and mental health.

The result is impressive: 4 out of 5 homeless people will be able to keep their flat for a long time with “Housing First” and lead a more stable life.

In the last 10 years, the “Housing First” program has provided 4,600 homes in Finland. In 2017 there were still about 1,900 people living on the streets — but at least enough empty beds were available for them in emergency shelters so that they didn’t have to sleep outside anymore.

Providing people with apartments is cheaper than leaving them on the street

Creating housing for people costs money. In the past 10 years, 270 million euros were spent on the construction, purchase and renovation of housing as part of the “Housing First” program. However, Juha Kaakinen points out, this is far less than the cost of homelessness itself. Because when people are in such desperate and dire situations, emergencies are more frequent: Assaults, robberies, injuries, breakdowns. The police, health care and justice systems are more often called upon to step in — and this also costs plenty of money.

In comparison, “Housing First” is cheaper than preserving homelessness: Now, the state spends annually 15,000 euros less per homeless person than before.

No miracle cure – but a high success rate

With 4 out of 5 people keeping their flats, “Housing First” is remarkably effective in the long run. In the remaining 20 percent of cases, people move out because they prefer to stay with friends or relatives — or because they cannot manage to pay the rent. But even in this case they are not dropped. They can apply again for an apartment and are supported again if they wish.

Of course, there is no guarantee for success. Homeless women especially are more difficult to reach: They conceal their transient situation more often: They live on the streets less frequently and rather stay with friends or acquaintances.


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