Finland is the only EU country where homelessness is falling. Its secret? Giving people homes as soon as they need them – unconditionally
A homeless woman sits outside downtown Helsinki central station in 2011. The city has since virtually eliminated rough sleeping. Photograph: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images
Tatu Ainesmaa turns 32 this summer, and for the first time in more than a decade he has a home he can truly say is his: an airy two-room apartment in a small, recently renovated block in a leafy suburb of Helsinki, with a view over birch trees.
“It’s a big miracle,” he says. “I’ve been in communes, but everyone was doing drugs and I’ve had to get out. I’ve been in bad relationships; same thing. I’ve been on my brother’s sofa. I’ve slept rough. I’ve never had my own place. This is huge for me.”
Downstairs in the two-storey block is a bright communal living and dining area, a spotless kitchen, a gym room and a sauna (in Finland, saunas are basically obligatory). Upstairs is where the 21 tenants, men and women, most under 30, live.
It is important that they are tenants: each has a contract, pays rent and (if they need to) applies for housing benefit. That, after all, is all part of having a home – and part of a housing policy that has now made Finland the only EU country where homelessness is falling.
When the policy was being devised just over a decade ago, the four people who came up with what is now widely known as the Housing First principle – a social scientist, a doctor, a politician and a bishop – called their report Nimi Ovessa (Your Name on the Door).
“It was clear to everyone the old system wasn’t working; we needed radical change,” says Juha Kaakinen, the working group’s secretary and first programme leader, who now runs the Y-Foundation developing supported and affordable housing.
“We had to get rid of the night shelters and short-term hostels we still had back then. They had a very long history in Finland, and everyone could see they were not getting people out of homelessness. We decided to reverse the assumptions.”
As in many countries, homelessness in Finland had long been tackled using a staircase model: you were supposed to move through different stages of temporary accommodation as you got your life back on track, with an apartment as the ultimate reward.
“We decided to make the housing unconditional,” says Kaakinen. “To say, look, you don’t need to solve your problems before you get a home. Instead, a home should be the secure foundation that makes it easier to solve your problems.”
With state, municipal and NGO backing, flats were bought, new blocks built and old shelters converted into permanent, comfortable homes – among them the Rukkila homeless hostel in the Helsinki suburb of Malminkartano where Ainesmaa now lives. SOURCE