Finland just might have the answer to our growing homeless crisis

A decade ago, Finland decided to tackle homelessness with a model called 'housing first'. it's been a remarkable success.

A decade ago, Finland decided to tackle homelessness with a model called 'housing first'. it's been a remarkable success. Photo: Getty

Australia’s homelessness and affordable housing crisis is worsening. But there may be a solution from a rather unlikely place.

Finland has the distinction of being the only European country where homelessness has decreased in recent years, and the rest of the world is starting to take notice.

Between 2008 and 2016, long-term homelessness in Finland was slashed by a staggering 35 per cent.

By contrast, homelessness in Australia rose 13.7 per cent over the five years to 2016, according to census data.

A decade ago, Finland decided to tackle chronic homelessness by providing permanent housing — individual apartments rather than temporary shelter accommodation — to rough sleepers and others in the grip of long-term homelessness. It’s success has been remarkable.

The model is known as Housing First.

One of Finland’s biggest advocates of Housing First is Juha Kaakinen, CEO of Y-Foundation, a social housing organisation which has provided more than 6000 homes to former rough sleepers, and 10,000 homes to low-income families and individuals.

“Housing is the foundation for solving other issues. That was the change in thinking,” Mr Kaakinen said.

“You don’t need to be ‘housing ready’, it’s not a reward after you’ve solved your issues. It’s the basis for solving them.”

The program has been both a social and economic success.

Providing a homeless person with permanent housing in a supported housing unit saves the government approximately €15,000 ($23,400) per person per year, according to an evaluation of the program by the Technical University of Tampere, with savings mainly coming from reduced use of health services and institutional care.

 Could Housing First work in Australia?

In Australia, funding for social housing has failed to keep pace with the country’s growing population.

Just 3.3 per cent of the population was accommodated in social housing in 2016, compared with 5 per cent in 2001.

By contrast, social housing in Finland comprises 13 per cent of the total housing stock, and 20 per cent in areas with new housing.

According to Mr Kaakinen, this is the minimum level of government investment required to adequately address homelessness.

National housing campaign Everybody’s Home is calling for the government to “fix Australia’s housing systems so it works for everyone”.

One in three Australians knows someone who’s homeless, and 42 per cent of Australians worry they could become homeless if their circumstances change, according to research conducted for the campaign.

Everybody’s Home spokesperson Kate Colvin said the figures show that homelessness is a growing concern for ordinary Australians.

“It’s now no longer a niche issue, it’s an issue that an overwhelming number of voters expect their politicians to act on,” Ms Colvin said.

“79 per cent of people believe that in a wealthy country like Australia, governments have a responsibility to make sure everybody has a roof over their head.”

According to the research, three in four voters across the political spectrum believe more social housing is critical to solving homeless.

Council to Homeless Persons CEO Jenny Smith said that Australia’s low level of social housing put it at odds with “any other civilised, humane society”, and that we also lack protections for renters.

Australians also have fundamental misperceptions about homelessness, believing it to be the result of poor life decisions, rather than systemic issues such as a lack of affordable housing, Ms Smith said.

“In fact, our housing market is structured so that people on lowest incomes such as those on Centrelink can’t possibly afford to put a roof over their heads,” she said.

“If we keep saying the people who have become homeless have brought it on themselves we will never identify the problem that needs to be solved.”

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