HELSINKI, Finland — The Housing First approach is working exceptionally well for solving homelessness in Finland. According to the Y-Foundation, Finland had around 18,000 homeless citizens in 1987. This number had dropped significantly by 2017 to 7,112. With the help of NGOs and municipal governments, the Finnish state had embraced a two-part initiative called the Finnish Homelessness Reduction Programme (Paavo I and II) with the goal of reducing and preventing long-term homelessness. The program spanned from 2008-2015.
Housing First: Solving Homelessness in Finland
The Finnish people perceive homelessness through a different lens than most Americans and other Europeans. For example, in the United Kingdom, stable accommodations are provided to homeless people on the condition that they seek treatment and clean themselves up from substance abuse and addiction. This is where the Finnish approach diverges from the U.K.’s so-called “staircase model.” In an article in the Guardian, the author compares the situation in Finland and the U.K. “How do we expect people to address complex personal problems while exposed to the chaos of life on the streets?”
In Finland, the government provides housing from the start. This is a fitting policy for a country where many believe that a safe place to live is a prerequisite for solving personal problems such as drug abuse. The eradication of homelessness first appeared as a policy objective in 1987, but it contained no specific plan for bringing the goal to fruition. It wasn’t until the most recent decade when the Finnish government embarked on a comprehensive program to not only eliminate homelessness but also prevent people from slipping through the cracks.
Paavo I and II
Finland found the answer to solving homelessness through Paavo I and II, an eight-year-long project administered by the Ministry of Environment that incorporated the resources of the Finnish state, municipal governments and NGOs. After 30 years of making partial efforts to solve homelessness, Jan Vapaavuori, Finland’s then housing minister, mobilized Finland to push for a more ambitious and extensive plan to tackle the issue. In February 2008, the government approved of the plan and divided it into two phases: Paavo I (2008-2011) and Paavo II (2012-2015).
The key strategy of Paavo I was to convert homeless shelters into permanent tenancies and provide support services for tenants as part of an intensive development program to prevent homelessness. During Paavo II, more focus was placed on preventive services, such as those aimed at social integration, housing advice and healthcare. This phase also expanded the number of permanent tenancies in Finnish cities. Rental agencies such as the Y-Foundation and the Finnish Youth Housing Association had sublet thousands of rental properties to tenants. They also partnered with other agencies to expand the availability of rental options outside of major cities, especially in the suburbs.
The Finnish Homelessness Reduction Programme Successes
In short, the program was very successful. The conversion of homeless shelters into permanent, supportive living spaces and the leasing of properties by rental agencies created thousands of safe dwellings for previously homeless people in Finland. Paavo I reduced long-term homelessness by 28 percent over the course of three years.
By the end of 2011, a total of 1,519 supportive housing units had been completed in 10 Finnish cities. Since Paavo II focused more on preventive services and social assistance programs, it did not achieve the same level of success in arranging housing accommodations as did Paavo I. Nonetheless, in 2012-2013, more than 280 evictions were canceled and more than 16,000 housing advice clients were registered in Helsinki alone. Rates of homelessness continued to decline during the years of Paavo II. At the conclusion of the Paavo program in 2015, long-term homelessness had decreased by 35 percent throughout all of Finland.
Even though the program comes with a price tag of $382 million, a case study by the Tampere University of Technology showed that Finnish society saved $18,500 per homeless person per year through supportive housing. The state no longer needs to expend its resources on managing homelessness, like responding to medical emergencies or violent altercations on the streets or paying legal costs in the event that a homeless person commits a crime. These benefits show that the large price tag will likely be worth it in the long run as homelessness in Finland becomes a thing of the past.
– Grayson Cox