Finland is the only country out of the 28 in the European Union where homelessness is falling. Everywhere else, it’s rising or refuses to budge.
It’s a similar problem in Australia, where – despite being one of the world’s wealthiest countries – homelessness has increased by 14 per cent in the years between 2011 and 2016, according to ABS data.
So, what can we learn from Finland?
Related story: What will it take to fix homelessness in Australia?
In Helsinki, tackling homelessness is led by a Housing First principle. That is, the best way to end homelessness is to give people houses.
And since launching in 2008, the number of long-term homeless people in the Scandinavian nation has fallen by more than 35 per cent, while the number of those rough sleeping in Helsinki has nearly reached zero.
“The Finns have turned the traditional approach to homelessness on its head,” the World Economic Forum stated last year.
“There can be a number of reasons as to why someone ends up homeless, including sudden job loss or family breakdown, severe substance abuse or mental health problems. But most homelessness policies work on the premise that the homeless person has to sort those problems out first before they can get permanent accommodation.
“Finland does the opposite - it gives them a home first.”
The idea is that having a permanent home makes it easier to address issues like substance abuse or mental health challenges.
And the homes aren’t free either, tenants pay rent and may apply for housing support. Tenants also receive tailored support services.
It isn’t cheap, Juha Kaakinen, the chief executive of Y-Foundation, a social enterprise that provides housing for Housing First, said in The Guardian.
“Implementing housing first is not reasonable without proper housing options. It should go without saying that you can’t offer homeless people homes if the homes do not exist,” he said.
“In Finland, housing options included the use of social housing, buying flats from the private market to be used as rental apartments for homeless people, and building new housing blocks for supported housing. An important part of the programme was the extensive conversion of shelters and dormitory-type hostels into supported housing, to address the huge need for accommodation that offered help to tenants.
“All this costs money, but there is ample evidence from many countries that shows it is always more cost-effective to aim to end homelessness instead of simply trying to manage it. Investment in ending homelessness always pays back, to say nothing of the human and ethical reasons.”
How Wales is addressing homelessness
Wales is implementing a similar strategy.
Under a homelessness prevention law passed in 2015, local governments were required to increase their investment in homelessness-prevention support services and help homeless people gain housing, and provide homes if they are in priority need.
Support to prevent evictions like tenant and landlord mediation and rapid rehousing are also required by the local governments.
Since the law’s introduction, demand for crisis accommodation in Wales has fallen by 18 per cent.
Dr Peter Mackie, a Welsh expert in homelessness, argues a requirement for governments to support those in need has the power to greatly reduce homelessness.
A “duty to assist” law would required the government invest in providing more social and affordable housing.
In Wales, “Everybody who comes in the door who’s at risk of homelessness gets help and it’s the minimum help that’s required to keep a home, or if a person is already homeless, to find a home,” Mackie said.
“We’re now successfully preventing homelessness in nearly 70 per cent of cases. The law has shifted everything earlier and we’re now less focussed on crisis.”
Such a law in Australia would force the government to provide more housing, something homelessness advocates believe is critical to addressing the issue.
“In Australia, we are seeing policy focus more and more on the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff and ineffective ‘’quick fixes’’ like shelters, but international evidence shows the most effective strategy is to invest in prevention and social housing,” Council to Homeless Persons chief and the chair of Homelessness Australia, Jenny Smith, said.
“Australia could reduce homelessness if we adopted the Welsh model of requiring governments to deliver prevention support.”
She said the value of investment in homelessness services has fallen by $82 million in real terms in the last five years.
“The Welsh experience demonstrates that our federal government needs to increase, not reduce, its investment in social housing and homelessness services.”
National homelessness advocacy group Everybody’s Home is recommending for similar strategies, and earlier this week called on the government to work on a national plan.
Campaign spokesperson Kate Colvin said this was the perfect time to push for progress, as 4-10 August marks Homelessness Week.
“We need a national homelessness action plan that addresses all the drivers of homelessness, including falling investment in social housing in Australia and proper support services for people experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness.
“Any action plan should also be bipartisan, and include input from all state and territory Premiers or Homelessness Ministers, from local government, people with a lived experience of homelessness, and people working in the sector.
“We know the solutions that will work. We just just need a plan for putting them in place.”
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