finland homelessness
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
January 20, 2020 ·  4 min read

Finland Ends Homelessness and Provides Shelter For All in Need.

On any single night in the United States, over half a million people go homeless. While some of these people take refuge in emergency shelters, just under 200 thousand of them are unsheltered on our streets, in parks, cars, or abandoned buildings [1].

The situation across the pond isn’t any better. Germany has seen a 150 percent increase in homelessness since 2014, with approximately 860 thousand people without a permanent residence on any given night. Countries like Ireland and Belgium have also seen massive increases in the last decade, at 160 and 142 percent respectively [2]. These sudden and drastic increases highlight the homeless crisis that is worsening all over the globe. Amid all of this, however, there is one country that is tackling its homeless problem- and winning. Finland is the only European nation that has actually seen a decrease in homelessness in the last decade [2].

The Cycle of Homelessness

Homelessness is a very complex issue, that occurs when an individual cannot afford to put a roof over their head. This, of course, includes individuals who are living on the streets- they are the “visual” homeless- but also people who are living on the couches of friends, family members, and neighbors – the “invisible” homeless.

Often times, homelessness is triggered by job loss, injury, or unexpected bills that exceed an individual’s income. It is estimated that nearly a third of the working population is one medical bill, missed paycheck, or one bad accident away from being unable to afford their homes [3].

People who find themselves in these situations have a difficult time getting help, since most aid programs require a home address in order to get assistance. Some of these people have jobs, but their salary is not enough to cover their living expenses or the needs of their families [3].

Children who grow up without a home have decreased literacy rates and reduced vocabularies. They do not perform as well in school, which leads to higher dropout rates, making it more difficult for them to find work and thus continuing the multigenerational cycle of homelessness [3,4].

Finland has been attempting to reduce its homelessness since the 1980s, but an inadequate number of emergency shelters meant that many people were being left out. Without an address, these people could not find jobs, but without a job, they could not find an apartment. They also had difficulty applying for social benefits, trapping them in a cycle of poverty.

Read: Parking Lot gets Turned Into a Safe Haven For The Homeless At Night

Housing First

The conventional structure of homeless aid is to encourage affected individuals to find a job and deal with any psychological problems or addictions they are experiencing before they receive assistance finding a home. Finland’s “Housing First” strategy is reversing that concept [5].

Under this model, a homeless person gets a place to live first, then they are provided with counseling by a social worker who helps them apply for social benefits. Being in a secure situation makes it easier for them to find a job, and take care of their physical and mental health [5].

“In the Housing First model, a dwelling is not a reward that a homeless person receives once their life is back on track. Instead, a dwelling is the foundation on which the rest of life is put back together. When a person has a roof securely over their head it is easier for them to focus on solving their other problems.” [6]

Read: City is Paying the Homeless $9.25 an Hour to Clean Up Litter

How Does the Program Work?

Housing is provided for people in need through NGOs such as the “Y-Foundation”. These organizations take responsibility for purchasing new apartments on the private housing market, renovating existing apartments and even building new ones. Many places that were former emergency shelters have now also been converted into long-term housing [5].

Once a homeless person becomes a tenant, they are expected to pay rent and operating costs. Social workers, who are paid by the state, have offices in the buildings to help with applications to social benefits. The NGO uses a loan from the bank to pay for the housing and uses the rental income to pay it back [5]

The program only works if there is adequate housing to meet the needs of all of the homeless people in the country, so constructing and purchasing new, affordable housing is a primary goal of the program [6].

Lowering the Cost of Homelessness

Providing homes for every single person in a country is costly, but not as costly as homelessness itself. When people are in emergency situations, they tend to experience emergencies more often. Assaults, injuries, and mental breakdowns require the attention of the police, the medical system, and the justice system, all of which cost money [5]. 

With the new program, the state is spending 15 thousand euros less per homeless person than they were before [5].

Tampere, a city in southern Finland, saved almost 250 thousand euros in one year thanks to the new model [6].

A High Success Rate

In addition to saving money, the “Housing First” program has been hugely successful. Four out of five people who take part in the program are able to keep their apartments [5], and since 1987, about 12 thousand people in Finland have received a home [6].

“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.” (Juha Kaakinen, Director of the Y-Foundation) [5].

Of course, there is no perfect system and Finland has not completely eradicated homelessness, but the program’s success will hopefully inspire other countries to change their approach to the homeless crisis within their own borders.