Why is Finland the only European country where homelessness is falling? They immediately provide homes, no strings attached

Here’s the kind of policy on a social need which works because someone decided to turn presumptions exactly upside down. Instead of a decent home being the outcome of good behaviour when receiving welfare services, how about if it was the starting point - the very basis of progress?

This is what’s happened in Finland, the country that’s leading the EU in tackling homelessness. While all other countries have rising indicators, the Finns are dropping fast. As the Guardian reports:

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.

The “Housing First” model - bypass the ladder

The “Housing First” model - bypass the ladder

“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.”

The article goes on to talk about its cost, but also the ultimate savings:

Housing First costs money, of course: Finland has spent €250m creating new homes and hiring 300 extra support workers. But a recent study showed the savings in emergency healthcare, social services and the justice system totalled as much as €15,000 a year for every homeless person in properly supported housing.

Homeless homes in Rukkila, Malminkartano, Helsinki

Homeless homes in Rukkila, Malminkartano, Helsinki

Interest in the policy beyond the country’s borders has been exceptional, from France to Australia, says Vesikansa. The British government is funding pilot schemes in Merseyside, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, whose Labour mayor, Andy Burnham, is due in Helsinki in July to see the policy in action.

But if Housing First is working in Helsinki, where half the country’s homeless people live, it is also because it is part of a much broader housing policy. More pilot schemes serve little real purpose, says Kaakinen: “We know what works. You can have all sorts of projects, but if you don’t have the actual homes … A sufficient supply of social housing is just crucial.”

And there, the Finnish capital is fortunate. Helsinki owns 60,000 social housing units; one in seven residents live in city-owned housing. It also owns 70% of the land within the city limits, runs its own construction company, and has a current target of building 7,000 more new homes – of all categories – a year.

In each new district, the city maintains a strict housing mix to limit social segregation: 25% social housing, 30% subsidised purchase, and 45% private sector. Helsinki also insists on no visible external differences between private and public housing stock, and sets no maximum income ceiling on its social housing tenants.

The article goes on to talk about how important available support services are for these residents also.

In terms of the A/UK’s localist agenda, the questions to ask are about the level at which house-building power should be located - giant municipalities like Helsinki, or smaller towns and parishes? To what extent can the new rising land radicalism - most recently represented by George Monboit’s report delivered to the Labour Party last week, Land for the Many, but a long-standing agenda in Scotland - help to increase local power over house-planning and building?