There are more than a million empty homes in Canada and on any given night at least 35,000 Canadians are homeless. They pack into overflowing, often dangerous, shelters or they hunker down outside, hoping the elements will be kinder to them than the conditions indoor.
In the 1980s, a Canadian psychologist working in New York had an idea: maybe the best way to solve the problem of homelessness was to give people homes. Sam Tsemberis was one of the earliest proponents of a model known as Housing First. The idea was viewed as outlandish and unworkable.
Skeptics argued that complex issues like addiction and mental health had to be addressed first before someone was a suitable candidate for long-term housing. How would the cost be justified to hardworking taxpayers?
But the idea has caught on.
Housing First projects have appeared in municipalities across Asia, Europe and North America, including Medicine Hat, Alta.
Now, Finland has become the first country to adopt a national housing first approach to homelessness.
Juha Kaakinen, CEO of Finland’s largest housing nonprofit, the Y-Foundation, has been working in the area of homelessness and social welfare since the 1980s. He was one of the architects of Housing First — Finland’s national plan. He spoke to The Sunday Edition‘s Michael Enright about how Finland eradicated homelessness.
Here are some highlights from their conversation interview. Kaakinen’s comments have been edited for clarity and condensed.
A home without preconditions
You can call it a principle, a service model or a philosophy; the main thing is treating homeless people like everybody else — people who have the same rights and see housing as a human right. So the housing first principle means that you give a homeless person a home, a flat, or a rental flat with a contract, without preconditions. You are not required to solve your problems or get sober, for example, to get a permanent home. And then, when you have this home, you can get support to solve your issues. This is a simple basic principle of housing first.
Finland succeeds where the rest of Europe did not
A lot of progress has been made. We now have the lowest number of homeless. Our present government has decided that the rest of the homeless should be halved within the next four years and completely end by 2027.
We have had a constant policy of providing affordable, social housing. The state finances this. And in each new housing area, especially in the big cities, at least 25 per cent of housing must be affordable, social housing. This has kept the supply to a reasonable level. This has been probably the main reason why we don’t have the kind of housing crisis that most European countries have at the moment.
How Housing First works
For example, in Helsinki, there is a service centre for homeless people. You can always go in, no matter your condition. It’s probably the most similar to the shelters in other countries. But it’s the only one, with 52 beds. You discuss your situation with a social worker and they try to arrange housing for you. They make an assessment, find out what your needs are.
Affordable social housing stock is another option. For over 30 years, the Y-Foundation has been buying flats from the private market. We use these flats specifically as rental flats for homeless people.
Maybe the most important structural change in Finland is that we’ve renovated our temporary accommodations in shelters and hostels into supported housing. For example, the last big shelter in Helsinki, run by the Salvation Army, had 250 beds. It was completely renovated in 2012. Now they have 81 independent, modern, apartments in that same building. They also have on-site staff for support. So this structural change has probably been the crucial thing that has led to this trend of decreasing homelessness.
The common thing for all homeless people is that they don’t have a home. Everybody has their own story, their own history. They have their own resources. They may also have their own problems. For that reason, you have to make a very tailor-made plan for people, to provide adequate support.
For example, if you have drug abuse problems, simply providing housing doesn’t solve that kind of issue. You may need rehabilitation, detoxification, etc. These other elements are important. But to get these things done successfully, you must provide permanent housing. That way you can be sure that you are not kicked out the next morning and you can plan your life ahead.
Why the taxpayer argument doesn’t hold up
Keeping people homeless, instead of providing homes for them, is always more expensive for the society. In Finland we have some scientific evaluations of the cost of this program. When a homeless person gets a permanent home, even with support, the cost savings for the society are at least 15,000 Euros per one person per one year. And the cost savings come from different use of different services.
In this study, they looked at the services that homeless people used when they were without a home. They calculated every possible thing: emergency healthcare, police, justice system, etc. They then compared that cost to when people get proper housing. And this was the result. I’m quite sure this kind of cost analysis can also be found for Canada.
Political understanding is crucial
What has been crucial in Finland is that there has been a political understanding and political consensus: this is a national problem that we should solve together. Since 2008, we have had several governments with several different political coalitions. All these governments have decided to continue to work to end homelessness. This kind of political will — that’s the starting point. It doesn’t solve everything but it helps.
It demands politicians who have an understanding of human dignity.– Juha Kaakinen
I think that it demands politicians who have an understanding of human dignity. It doesn’t require more. In Finland we have a very wide partnership. It has been a collaboration between the state, big cities and big NGOs working together towards the same goal.
Changing public attitude
There are several ways you can affect public attitudes. Facts and research are good starting points. But it’s always important to tell people stories of those whose lives have changed since they got housing. These things have an emotional impact on the general public. If there are willing former homeless people, who would like to tell their stories, this kind of human interest element is very powerful. But, of course there are very clear facts behind how it should be done and why we should speak about housing as human rights issue.