“It just makes so much common sense”. This is the comment I get the most when explaining the principles of Housing First to those not working in the homelessness sector. Why isn’t such a simple and genuine idea a more prevalent model in tackling homelessness?
In recent years, Finland has been hailed as a model country for ending homelessness. As a highly self-critical nation, we Finns tend to think our homelessness system is not perfect and much more needs to be done. Yet we can see that it works. Homelessness, especially long-term homelessness, is decreasing. At the same time, we hear the numbers of homeless people are at record highs in most European countries; in big cities, street homelessness is rising dramatically and homeless people are even dying on the streets.
What could be learnt from the Finnish experience? Since 2008 when the National Program to End Long-term Homelessness was launched, the Finnish service system for homeless people has gone through a major transformation. In the Program our understanding of Housing First was adopted as a key national policy principle. As Housing First is based on providing permanent housing, it had an immediate effect on the service system.
The National Program had concrete goals to acquire permanent housing options. At the same time a process to minimise temporary accommodation as an alternative was started. In a few years the amount of shelter and hostel places went down radically. Some of the existing shelter/hostel buildings were renovated to be supported housing units where everyone has their own independent flat and rental contract. Shared facilities and on-site personnel are present to provide support when needed.
For us, Housing First is a person-centered approach which fundamentally comes down to two key components: housing and support. Both are as necessary, but various housing alternatives and various support arrangements can take place. Our housing options include individual rental apartments in scattered housing or individual rental apartments in supported housing units. Scattered housing is either in social housing or in flats, which NGOs, like Y-Foundation, have been buying from the private market.
Also, the forms of support vary according to individual needs. In Finland we rely heavily on existing basic social and health services. Intensive multi-professional support can also be provided, especially in supported housing units. As housing is unconditional, receiving support is voluntary. An important form of financial support is the general housing benefit, which helps securing tenancy for people with a low income.
- Compare countries with the OECD Affordable Housing Database
Housing First is rapidly gaining ground in Europe. Currently in at least 16 European countries (as well as the United States, Canada and Australia) have projects and pilots on Housing First. In some countries a national plan for scaling up Housing First has been put together. To speed up this process Y-Foundation and FEANTSA, together with 16 partners from 10 countries and links to experts in Canada, United States and Australia, established a network called the Housing First Europe Hub. It provides training, research and advocacy work for organisations that want to implement Housing First.
Still, the progress is slow. In many countries there is eagerness to proceed but the lack of affordable housing, especially affordable social housing, seems to be the main obstacle. Because of the lack of housing, implementing Housing First is not yet reflected in the homelessness figures. Housing First can have a catalytic role in changing the paradigm of homelessness services into permanent housing. In our experience this shift from temporary to permanent housing is the only way to end homelessness.
It is obvious that you cannot have Housing First without having… housing…first. Housing First cannot end homelessness on its own but together with affordable social housing it is a winning combination. Social housing is undoubtedly also the most important and most effective structural measure in preventing homelessness. A recent groundbreaking Australian study by Guy Johnson et al. demonstrated, among many other findings, that public housing is a very strong protective factor in reducing risks of homelessness. According to the study, approximately 73% of cases flowing into homelessness could be avoided if the vulnerable people were placed in public housing.
Although now the general state of homelessness is grim, positive developments are occurring. There is clearly a growing awareness of seeing adequate housing as a basic human right. There is more understanding of what role affordable social housing can play. There is a lot of well-meaning talk around homelessness, but there is still an inertia to move from talk and papers to concrete action. The question is: how long can the homeless people wait?
As it seems there isn’t enough political will to make necessary decisions in many nation states to end homelessness, I would like to challenge the international bodies. My question is: Have the UN, the OECD and the EU together with nation states done everything in their power to end homelessness? There certainly is more that can be done.
Homeless people need homes to lead a decent life. If we can’t solve a social problem, which has such an obvious and simple solution, how on earth can we even dream of solving other pressing global problems that endanger the future of mankind on this planet?
- The Housing First model has been successfully implemented in several countries, but mainly in individual projects and pilots. What are the obstacles for scaling up Housing First?
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