How Finland Confronts the Problem of Chronic Homelessness

Housing First, Finland’s national strategy to reduce the number of long-term homeless, is working just as planned. According to Housing First Europe, there were nearly 19,000 homeless people living in Finland in 1987. As of 2016, the number had plummeted to 6,684 individuals and 325 families.

The number of chronic homeless, defined as those who have been without stable housing for a year or more, continues to drop. Finland is the only European country where homelessness has decreased.

Housing First is based on a strategy to provide people with stable housing instead of transitional or temporary housing or public shelters. The primary principle is to provide people with safe, secure homes as soon as possible.

There are no preconditions or qualifications. The idea is that once people are established in their own homes, it becomes possible to tackle issues such as substance abuse, mental health issues, health problems or job training.

In Finland, Housing First is a partnership of government, communities, and non-governmental organizations such as Salvation Army. Projects are backed by grants and low interest loans. Finland’s slot machine association has also been an integral part of funding.

Tenants enter contracts and to pay rent. Depending on income, they may contribute to the cost of drug treatment programs or other services. Between 2008 and 2015, 6,000 housing units, mostly apartments with some hostels and dormitories, were purchased or built.

Homelessness: A World-Wide Problem

A survey conducted by the United Nations estimated that in 2005, 100 million people around the world were homeless or lived in inadequate shelters. By 2015, the global homeless population had skyrocketed to 1.6 billion.

Housing First was created in the United States as a response to a rapid increase in the number of homeless families with children. The program, which initially involved relatively small projects in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver and Chicago, also offers case management and support services, thus providing additional stability and increasing the chance of success.

Today, programs are operating in many cities across the U.S., including New Orleans, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Cleveland and Austin. The result is a significant reduction in costs for emergency room visits, inpatient detox, and days spent in jail or prison.

More Effective and Less Expensive

Placing homeless people in homes is expensive, but it appears that in the long term, providing people with housing is less expensive than trying to manage the problem with ineffective, short-term solutions. In Finland, Housing First has also boosted local economies and reduced employment.

Other countries are observing Finland, and many have adapted the Housing First program to fit their own needs. Projects are operating in Japan, Australia, France and Canada, and more are coming on board.

However, financing remains a sticking point, as Housing First requires a substantial investment. Although many people believe housing is a basic human right, there is also a school of thought that people should find a job or seek help in the form of mental health care or treatment for alcoholism before entering housing.

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