While most of the developed world struggles with growing or stubbornly unchanged rates of homelessness, one nation is bucking the trend: Finland has seen the number of homeless people decline from its peak of 18,000 just thirty years ago, to 7,000 today (of whom 5,000 are at least in temporary housing with loved ones). It has accomplishd this in a deceptively simple way: by giving homeless people homes.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, it all began with the Finnish government making homelessness a national priority:
The elimination of homelessness first appeared in the Helsinki government’s program in 1987. Since then virtually every government has devoted significant resources toward this end.
Around 10 years ago, however, observers noticed that although homelessness in general was declining, long-term homelessness was not. A new approach to the problem was called for, along with a new philosophy.
The optimal solution, a group of four experts appointed by the Ministry of the Environment found, was Housing First. “Solving social and health problems is not a prerequisite for arranging housing,” they observed. “Instead, housing is a prerequisite that will also enable solving a homeless person’s other problems.”
The concept behind the new approach was not original; it was already in selective use in the US as part of the Pathways Model pioneered by Dr. Sam Tsemberis in the 1990s to help former psychiatric patients. What was different, and historic, about the Finnish Housing First model was a willingness to enact the model on a nationwide basis.
“We understood, firstly, that if we wanted to eradicate homelessness we had to work in a completely different way,” says Mr. Kaakinen, who acted as secretary for the Finnish experts. “At the same time right from the beginning there was a national consensus that the problem had reached a crisis point. … We decided as a nation to do something about this.”
As a result, in 2008 the Finnish National Program to reduce long-term homelessness was drafted and put into place. Helsinki and nine other Finnish cities committed to the program, with the Ministry of the Environment coordinating its implementation, and local governments and nongovernmental organizations, including the Y-Foundation, joining the team.
One of those goals was to cut the number of long-term homeless in half by producing 1,250 new homes, including supported housing units for tenants with their own leases, and around-the-clock presence of trained caring staff for residents who needed help.At the same time, the extant network of homeless shelters was phased out. This also involved phasing out the “old way” of thinking about homelessness. “There was some work to be done on attitudes,” concedes Kaakinen. “Some of the people in the NGOs found the idea of unconditional housing hard to accept.” Also some staff had difficulty with not forcing tenants with alcohol or drug problems to go cold turkey before they were given housing.
The model’s success speaks for itself: across the nation, chronic homelessness fell by 35 percent between 2008 and 2015; in some communities, it was halved.
Of course, building new housing and employing specially trained, round-the-clock caregivers is not cheap, costing the government nearly $382 million in that same span of time. Yet supporters of the program point out that this all pays for itself: according to one 2011 study, the country saved $18,500 annually for every homeless person given housing and professional support. That’s because they no longer needed to rely on emergency medical or police services to help them.
But as Juha Kaakinen, CEO of the Y-Foundation, which helps provide 16,500 low-cost apartments for the homeless, points out:
“Of course the fact that the program pays for itself is important, but beyond that, from a moral point of view, as a society which cares for all of its citizens, we didn’t think we see an alternative. This, we felt, was the way to go forward. And we did.”