Sports field with goal posts and houses in the distance

Mayor's Homelessness Blog - July

 Lessons from Finland

When I decided to make ending rough-sleeping my top priority, I quickly lost count of the number of people who said: you’ve got to go to Finland.

Last week I finally made my first visit and I am so glad I did. In these modern times which seem to become more harsh and polarised with every new week, it was wonderful to find that a different world can still exist.

Since 2008, Finland has been quietly proving that it is entirely possible to win the war on homelessness. It is the only country in Europe where the number of homeless people has been in decline for a decade. This is a remarkable achievement - particularly when you consider how, over the same period, homelessness has increased exponentially in the UK, US and around Europe. Rough-sleeping has all but disappeared in Finland; here it has increased by 165% since 2010.

Following the financial crash, it feels as though homelessness has begun to be viewed by many in a defeatist way - as an inevitable fact of modern city life which can’t be solved. 

The big news from Helsinki is that it can - as long it is prioritised at a national level and people who are homeless are seen and helped as individual people, not “others” or outsiders.

Or, to put it another way, it can be solved by doing the exact opposite of what the UK has done.

In 2008, when Finland was launching its new drive against homelessness, we were witnessing the rise of a new, judgmental and unforgiving political discourse. People down on their luck were suddenly branded shirkers or feckless. The signal from politicians to public servants was clear: if in doubt, err on the side of the punitive rather than the supportive. The human consequences of this harsh approach can still be seen huddled in the doorways of most British cities.

So how exactly did Finland buck the trend? 

In 2007, a working group of experts submitted a report to the the Finnish Government - entitled Name On The Door - which set the radical ambition of ending long-term homelessness by 2015. The report stated: “this requires adopting the Housing First principle, where a person does not have to first change their life around in order to earn the basic right to housing. Instead, housing is the prerequisite that allows other problems to be solved.”

This humane philosophy - of good housing as a human right, the foundation on which everything else in life is built - is simple but profound and turns the way welfare systems in most countries work on its head. But here’s the crucial point: Finland is certain that the adoption of Housing First as a guiding national policy has saved the country public money. They are no longer paying for the consequences of social failure which is what most countries like ours tend to do.

What Housing First meant in practice was a decision to close traditional homeless shelters, which were believed simply to sustain people in a bad position rather then help them recover, and convert them into blocks of self-contained flats managed by charitable organisations.

I was lucky to visit the Alppikatu project, which used to be Helsinki’s largest shelter. It is now a supported housing unit with 81 apartments and resident’s names on the door, as well as a canteen, communal spaces and 22 trained and specialist staff to provide a range of support.

Unsurprisingly, it works. I spoke to residents who explained how their lives had been turned around. They are fully included in decisions and the work involved in the running of the place.

For Britain, there are so many lessons to learn from Housing First in Finland. But I will keep it to two. 

The first is to give people time and space. At Alppikatu, people’s tenancies are not time-restricted. This will sound strange to British ears as we love nothing more than investing some strange rules for people to abide by and limiting to support to six months or a year. The clear advice from my Finnish friends was this: don’t set people up to fail. Deadlines create stress and problems.

The secret of Housing First’s success is that it lifts homeless people out of the tyranny of the bureaucracy of welfare and housing systems. It allows them time to start again - exactly what is needed after the trauma of breakdown and rough-sleeping.

The second great lesson is that the drive against homelessness needs to be a shared national mission. The Housing Minister who received the working group report back in 2007 is now the Mayor of Helsinki. He explained to me proudly how the Housing First philosophy had become adopted by the entire system - from national Government through to regional and city authorities as well as public and voluntary bodies. 

To be fair to some in our Government, they have recognised how the Finnish approach may have merit. As Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid launched a Housing First pilot in the West Midlands, Greater Manchester and Liverpool City-Region. 

The Greater Manchester pilot is beginning to get going and is based closely on the Finnish philosophy, albeit using separate flats, rather than a single block.

I have high hopes for what the UK version of Housing First might achieve. But it is not helped by the fact that it has been set up as an isolated pilot. Other areas of government policy - such as Universal Credit and housing - are working against rather than with it. If Housing First were to be adopted as a long-term permanent policy of UK Government as a whole, I believe we could begin to end long-term homelessness as Finland has done.

In the absence of that, Greater Manchester is using devolution to implement as much of Housing First as we can. We haven’t got enough homes to be able to close shelters. But our ground-breaking A Bed Every Night scheme is running every night and last week 337 people were accommodated through it. And, like Housing First, when people come into a shelter, they are able to stay in the same bed every night. This explains why around 600 people have moved on in a positive way from A Bed Every Night.

Greater Manchester still has much to do. But the good news is I now know from my visit to Finland that it is entirely possible to achieve my goal of ending rough-sleeping - if everyone is prepared to change the way we think and work.

Article Published: 20/07/2019 08:52 AM