How Finland put housing first

Earlier this year, official figures showed that rough sleeping in England had risen for the sixth successive year.

The data showed that 4,134 people slept on the street in 2016, an increase of 16% on the previous year’s figure of 3,569, and more than double the 2010 figure. Many of those enduring long-term homelessness have complex and multiple needs related to mental health or addiction. While this is a growing problem in the UK, housing exclusion is by no means confined to these shores. As we reported in April, there is growing evidence of an alarming increase in homelessness across Europe.

But one European country is bucking this trend. Since 2008, the Finnish government has been working with housing agencies to reduce long term homelessness and improve prevention services. The adopted approach, called ‘Housing First’, has had a big impact, achieving a 35% fall in long term homelessness over seven years. Finland is now the only country in the European Union where homelessness continues to fall.

Housing First: what it means

Housing First is not a uniquely Finnish approach to tackling homelessness, nor is it a new idea. The practice began in Los Angeles in the 1980s. It’s based on the principle that housing is a basic human right, and turns on its head the notion that vulnerable people are only ‘housing ready’ once they have begun to engage with support services.

As the name suggests, Housing First means providing vulnerable people with permanent, affordable housing, and then offering specialised support to ensure that they don’t return to sleeping on the streets. However, acceptance of that support is not a condition for access to housing. The approach has been adopted in various American cities, as well as parts of Australia, Canada, France and Japan. But it’s in Finland that Housing First has achieved some of its most impressive results.

Housing First: how it works

One of the key players in Finland’s Housing First strategy is the Y-Foundation, an association of local authorities, church, construction, trade union and health organisations that has been supporting homeless people for more than thirty years. Starting in 2008, the foundation converted homeless shelters in Finland’s biggest cities into rental housing. At the same time, the government set targets for local authorities to build new flats in mixed housing developments. The programme is backed by money from government grants and the proceeds from Finland’s not-for-profit gambling monopoly.

Housing First: why it works

The cost estimate for Finland’s Housing First programme is €78 million. But Juha Kaakinen, chief executive of the Y-Foundation, has no doubts about its value for money. In an interview with Inside Housing, he explained:

“It’s not only good social policy; it has a big safety and security angle, as the more homeless people there are on the streets, the more unsafe the city is. And there’s an economic argument, too: taking care of these people is a good investment.”

He estimates that taking each homeless person off the streets saves social, health and emergency services around €15,000 a year.

Housing First in the UK

Homelessness charities in Britain have been taking great interest in the success of Housing First in Finland.

“It’s a stunning result,” Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at Crisis, told Inside Housing.  “They used to have a bigger homelessness problem than we have.” But he was less sure whether the programme could be replicated here. “We’ve got a system that is the exact opposite of Housing First. In Finland they made a strategic choice; that allowed them to change everything.”

Even so, Housing First is already gaining ground around the UK:

Scotland
A pilot project in Glasgow by Turning Point Scotland was the first Housing First project to be implemented in the UK. Between 2011 and 2013, the project provided mainstream social housing and 24/7 floating support to 22 individuals who were homeless, aged 18 or over, and involved in substance misuse. An evaluation of the project by Heriot Watt University found that none of the tenants were evicted from their flat and the majority of participants retained their tenancies.

Wales
The Welsh Government has announced that it is considering moves towards a Housing First policy. The communities and children secretary for Wales told the Welsh Assembly in April 2017 that he would be reviewing homelessness prevention in Wales, and is exploring Housing First initiatives.

Northern Ireland
Working with the Depaul youth homelessness charity, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive funded a Housing First pilot scheme in Belfast. An evaluation of the 18-month programme reported a number of positive results, including a high rate of tenancy retention, improvements in participants’ self-care, confidence and living skills, and reductions in their dependence on drugs and alcohol. A further Housing First programme has since been established in Derry.

England
In 2015, the University of York published findings from a study of nine Housing First services in England. The authors reported high levels of success in reducing long-term and repeated homelessness, with 74% of service users successfully housed for one year or more. There were also significant improvements in the physical and mental health of Housing First tenants and high levels of satisfaction. The Centre for Social Justice has called on the UK government to set up a £110m national Housing First programme, arguing that the investment would save money and lives.

Final thoughts

There is no quick fix to the problem of homelessness, but Finland has shown that adopting new ways of thinking about the problem can virtually eradicate rough sleeping. As Juha Kaakinen observes:

“Housing First means ending homelessness instead of managing it.”



Further reading on homelessness:

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