by Jasmine Moheb
While many of us have the freedom and fortune to say “there’s no place like home” and click our heels three times — or tap “Request Lyft” to order our horse-drawn carriage at the stroke of midnight — the concept of “home,” to many others, remain a fairytale. Just last year, an upward trend of homelessness rates in the U.S. saw as many as 552,830 individuals experiencing homelessness in one night. Regardless of the fact that L.A. city alone experienced an increase in homelessness of 16% over the past year, the fundamental human need for shelter has become more of a passing thought rather than a focal point of American policy.
Considering this state of conditions even in an elaborately-developed economy like that of the U.S., it comes as no surprise that the international community is also struggling in providing people homes. The most recent global count estimates that 100 million people are homeless, while 1.6 billion people lack adequate housing. Within the European Union, one of the world’s most successful economic blocs, homelessness is increasing in each member state with the exception of one outlier: Finland. In just seven years, the number of Finnish people without a home has decreased by 35%.
This successful reduction has been attributed to a program adopted by the government in 2007 called “Housing First.” It was built upon the principle of ensuring that people without a home acquire a permanent one as soon as possible and as a first priority of the program. The idea behind this was that finding permanent shelter enables an individual to build a system of friends, family, and work around a stable home, ultimately resulting in the development of a long-lasting community. Prior to adopting Housing First, Finland utilized the staircase model, a popular approach among many countries, which provides a series of temporary housing accommodations with the possible gain of an apartment after a series of lengthy life-changes. The government’s recognition of this model’s lack of solvency led to the implementation of Housing First—however, this new model could not attain success on its own. A series of strategic reforms was adopted alongside it that included help and support for those that were dealing with addiction or wanted to get an education to find work, as well as substantial investment in homelessness prevention. Prevention programs, which helped tenants in danger of losing their homes navigate possible solutions, cut the number of evictions from public housing in half from 2008 to 2016.
Through public and private support, houses, shelters, and even hostels (both public and private property) were bought and converted into permanent homes. As a result, 3,500 homes were secured since the start of the Housing First program. Those receiving this permanent housing are treated like typical tenants, given a contract and an obligation to pay rent with certain housing benefits given their circumstances. What makes this program unique is that permanent housing and support is given unconditionally, regardless of one’s enrollment in programs for drug abuse or mental health, and is only contingent upon the tenant’s interaction with support workers. With such transformative changes being implemented, the feasibility of maintaining funding for the program is undoubtedly a cause for concern. Finland has invested 250 million euros (approximately $283 million) in housing and towards hiring 300 support workers. However, Juha Kaakinen, an architect of the Housing First approach, cites a study in response, which claims 15,000 euros (approximately $17,000 dollars) are saved for every homeless person that finds permanent housing, through reduced costs in healthcare, social services, and the justice system.
Finland’s great success in nearly eradicating homelessness has attracted the attention of other countries in the European Union that hope to follow in the Finns’ footsteps. One of these countries is the United Kingdom, which currently uses a version of the staircase model that utilizes temporary accommodation and is consequently experiencing increasing numbers of individuals without a home. In fact, the U.K. last year decided to invest in pilot programs in Greater Manchester, Merseyside, and the West Midlands to test the effectiveness of the Finnish program in reducing homelessness. For these three programs, the U.K. invested 28 million euros in efforts to build 1,000 homes. Several additional trials that are currently being run in Wales have already shown positive results, foreshadowing the possible success that can be achieved through a mere small-scale implementation of the Housing First program.
With homelessness becoming a global trend, it is more important now than ever to look towards countries like Finland and their outstanding successes in permanently housing so many members of their community and enabling them to obtain this basic human need. Discussing cases like the Finns’ and implementing similar programs in other countries is a great first step in making attaining a home less of a fantasy and more so the reality that it must be to serve the needs of humans in leading a fulfilling life.