Housing First: What can Finland teach us about tackling homelessness?

The Big Issue heads to Helsinki to see how the Finns came closest to ending street homelessness as 2022 looks set to become a defining year for Housing First across the UK.

Housing First works. It’s a phrase that has almost become cliche when discussing how to end homelessness. But in Finland, at least, it’s undeniably true.

The idea is simple enough: people experiencing homelessness are offered a place to live and open-ended support to help them tackle their demons and adapt to independent life. The Finns didn’t come up with the model – its origins can be traced to New York in the 1990s – but it is the place where it has seen the most success.

Street homelessness is virtually non-existent in the Nordic country and homelessness has been decreasing since 2013 – five years after the Housing First model was implemented at scale in the country.

Recent official counts show there were 4,341 homeless people living alone among the general population of 5.5 million in 2020 – down 259 on the previous year. By contrast, Shelter revealed 274,000 people were homeless in England alone in December. Statistics show few Finns fall into homelessness in the long term.

That’s why a number of cabinet ministers, mayors and homelessness experts have travelled from the UK to Finland in recent years to see what lessons they can take away. Now The Big Issue is following.

Ironically, Finland’s approach started with the reverse journey. Juha Kaakinen, CEO of The Y-Foundation – one of the leading organisations managing Housing First projects in Finland – travelled to London to visit shelters for research in the early 1980s.


Things changed quickly on his return. The goal of ending homelessness was first mentioned in a national programme in 1987 and has remained on the political agenda for successive governments since. That long-term focus and co-operation between service providers, local and national leaders and more has been key to building those homes.

The Y-Foundation has around 6,000 apartments set aside for Housing First as well as 11,000 social housing flats, with 9,000 more under construction. Many of these are mixed in the same development to ease the transition into the wider community.

There is also a principle that Finnish local authorities must stick to – at least a quarter of homes within each housing project must be genuinely affordable. Because the planning system, political will and systemic support exists, so does the housing.

Housing First Juha Kaakinen
Juha Kaakinen has been the driving force behind Housing First in Finland and advised other countries, including the UK, on how to scale up the model to tackle homelessness. Image: Kirsi Tuura / Y-Foundation

“Actually, there have been some years recently when we have built more affordable social housing in Finland than in England,” says Kaakinen.

“The social housing apartments that the city owns are deeply important in preventing homelessness. This is some-thing that gives me confidence that in the coming years, we will be able to reduce homelessness even more.”

Such is the long-term success of Housing First in Finland over the last few decades, attention has now turned towards helping people into work.

Employment opportunities such as cleaning or clearing snow are open to tenants, offering them a chance to boost skills and gain vital experience for a wage. “We are using an app where you make your own profile, and then you can get job offers from our departments,” says Kaakinen. “When you have done the job, you get a recommendation and you can use it as a kind of CV to get a job. The idea is that you can live totally independently.”

Kaakinen will retire in the spring to be replaced as CEO by Teija Ojankoski. His successor will face bold targets of ending all homelessness in Helsinki by 2025 and across the whole of the country by 2027. Will reaching those goals be Kaakinen’s legacy?

“I have seen things changing but the job is not finished yet,” says Kaakinen. “I have great confidence in the political leadership of Helsinki. They seem to be taking it seriously because they see that it’s not a big problem.”

The situation can be manageable in the UK too, but the future of Housing First is not quite as certain here.

The model is central to plans in Scotland – which has a similar population and make-up to Finland. The Scottish government has continued to back Housing First throughout the Nicola Sturgeon era and that has seen almost 550 people housed. In Wales, too, there has been growth in the model as Minister for Climate Change Julie James has vowed “never to go back” to pre-pandemic days of mass home-lessness. Meanwhile the long-term commitments made in Westminster have been far more cautious.

There is no shortage of small-scale Housing First projects in England. A Homeless Link study found there were almost 200 projects running in 2020, housing around 2,000 people.

That includes Project Kali, run by London charity Single Homeless Project (SHP), which won the Homelessness Project of the Year award at November’s UK Housing Awards.

The project, which has been running for two years, has supported 15 women with complex needs after they left prison. SHP has seen almost every woman reduce reoffending and all the women on the programme maintain their tenancies.

“You could scale the project up relatively easily,” Mark Taylor-Kirk, SHP’s assistant director, tells The Big Issue.

“Many of the women we support have been around the hostels system for some time. It actually puts them in a position where they are faced with a lot of challenges they are trying to escape from, such as abuse and exploitation. Housing First offers a means of avoiding that.”

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But what can Housing First do to tackle homelessness on a larger scale?

That’s what Westminster leaders have been trying to find out since 2018 when they announced Housing First pilots in Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region and the West Midlands.

2022 will prove to be vital for the pilots and the role they play in the current government meeting its manifesto target of ending rough sleeping by 2024.

Greater Manchester’s pilot, was due to run out of funding on March 31. So far, 306 people have been supported into a home across the region, and managers are confident they will reach their target of 330 people by March.

“We have all really proven that it works,” the Greater Manchester pilot’s programme lead Martine Whitehead tells The Big Issue.

But Whitehead told The Big Issue both staff and the people they support were “nervous” that no more funding would be announced until learning the pilot would continue for two more years just two days before Christmas.

“One of the principles of Housing First thing is that support is provided for as long as a person wants or needs, so it flies in the face of that in terms of how we do funding in this country around homelessness interventions because they all seem to be fixed,” adds Whitehead

The signs since September’s cabinet reshuffle have pointed to the Westminster government’s support for Housing First. Housing secretary Michael Gove told MPs earlier this year that Housing First was “not enough on its own” to solve rough sleeping but was a “very transformative social policy intervention”.

But if lessons from Finland are truly to be learned, there can no room for last-minute decisions. Central government must offer long-term security and strategy – or face learning a harsher lesson when people return to the streets.

‘Housing First has given me my life back’

Homelessness took everything from Natasha Thompson.

Two years ago, the 34-year-old was addicted to drugs, living on the streets and facing domestic abuse with no prospects, no contact with her family and children, and no hope of getting a home.

Housing charity Trident Reach stepped in to offer her a flat in its Housing First programme in the West Midlands.

Now, Thompson’s life has been transformed.

She has managed to beat her addiction to heroin, crack and synthetic cannabinoids, and has learned to live independently.

None of it would have been possible without the stable base of a home.

“I remember it being -10C and someone stole my sleeping bag so I had to get an emergency foil blanket off the ambulance service. It was the coldest I’d ever been. I was crying. I still think about times like that – it makes me grateful that I’ve got this place,” Thompson tells The Big Issue.

“I’ve been on and off the streets for the last 11 years. But ever since I’ve got my flat I haven’t wanted to go back on the streets. I’ve worked really hard to try to do everything I need to do to keep the flat.”

With the stability of a home, she is eyeing a return to education in 2022 and wants to study biology in college so that one day she will be able to work in a lab.

She tells The Big Issue that having a home means she has an address so she can write to her children and she can also stop losing her mobile phone so she can keep in contact with other members of her family.

Trident Reach, which runs a 24/7 outreach team on behalf of Birmingham City Council as well as activating the council’s Severe Weather Emergency Protocol, also provides wrap-around support. Natasha has a support worker who helps her with managing her finances, food shopping and making it to GP appointments.

“I want to say thank you to my support worker. I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without her. I think because I got my Housing First everything fell into place,” says Natasha. “It’s made my life so much better.”

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.


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