The homelessness rates in Finland have been decreasing steadily since the 1980s but it seems like the Northern European country has finally brought them down to ~0%. The number of homeless people in Finland was as bad as 20,000 in the 1980s, then dropped to about half in the 90s but after that, the decline slowed down. As of 2010, there were still 7,877 single homeless people and 349 homeless families in the county.
The way Finland helped these last several thousand people was through their “Housing First” approach in the last decade (1). This concept aimed to first offer affordable housing to people and then help them get on their feet.
This idea goes in stark contrast to most Western anti-homelessness concepts that try to encourage homeless people to get on their feet first without offering them much initial help to do so. These methods rely on the homeless to look for a job and free themselves from their psychological problems or addictions.
Instead, the Finish have reached the conclusion that to truly defeat homelessness, people must first be given a roof over their heads as that would help them fix whatever root causes had led them to homelessness in the first place. Trying to first treat these various root causes has been proven to be ineffective in most other Western countries while Finland’s Housing First initiative works.
How does it work?
The Housing First principle was adopted by the Finish government between 2008 and 2015. It works by providing an apartment to long-term homeless people on a normal lease. These apartments can vary quite a bit – from self-contained apartments to housing blocks with constant support. The homeless are expected to pay rent as normal tenants would but they are also entitled to receive housing benefits. Those with higher income levels also pay for some of the support services they may require. Everything else, however, is covered by the government.
In addition, homeless people also benefit from other support services. There are housing advisors that help with advice on delinquent rent payments as well as with governmental applications for benefits. There are also financial counseling services.
A lot of these affordable housing complexes for long-term homeless people were formerly short-term shelters. As the Housing First principle deemed then ineffective, however, they were transformed to serve a new function. In addition to these buildings, more apartment blocks were also built and turned into supported housing.
“It all costs money,” said Juha Kaakinen, the chief executive of the Y-Foundation that provides housing to Housing First (2). “But there is ample evidence from many countries that shows that it is always more cost-effective to aim to end homelessness instead of simply trying to manage it. Investment in ending homelessness always pays back, to say nothing of the human and ethical reasons.”