Finland’s capital rapidly lowers its homeless population

Detailed brick and slate features of the grade II listed Birkenhead Higher Elementary School building in Birkenhead, Wirral, Merseyside
Detailed features of the grade II listed Birkenhead Higher Elementary School building in Birkenhead, Wirral, Merseyside

The media headlines regularly remind us of the rising homeless population of many countries, including the UK, where numbers have significantly multiplied since 2010. However,  the issue is being tackled head on in Helsinki, Finland, with an innovative new scheme.

If you take a stroll around Helsinki on a cold evening, you will notice something quite unusual. Compared with many UK towns and cities, homelessness seems not to exist, with no sleeping bags in shop doorways and no one begging. The Finnish government has spent the last thirty years working to reduce homelessness and their efforts seem to have paid off.

Helsinki’s deputy mayor for social services and health care, Sanna Vesikansa, says: “In my childhood I remember there were hundreds or even thousands of people sleeping in the parks and forests.” 

In the late 1980s there were approximately 18,000 homeless people in the city but this dropped massively by the end of 2017, when the number of people classified as without a permanent abode was just over 6,500 . This does not necessarily mean ‘homeless’, the term could be applied to those housed in temporary accommodation, staying with friends or family or between residences. Only a small number of these people were actually sleeping on the streets of Helsinki.

Winter can get bitterly cold in Helsinki, when temperatures during the coldest month of February average between  -3 and -22°C. Homelessness simply isn’t an option in a climate this cold.

Over the last twelve years, the government has strengthened its housing policies and used a “Housing First” strategy. This means assisting anyone who find themselves without a home and arranging accommodation that is permanent, as soon as possible. It can also mean helping someone back on their feet with regards to addiction, education and employment needs.

In the UK, we differ because a permanent home is only offered if the person involved has already been through the channels of trying to find a hostel or temporary accommodation themselves. So, could we benefit from this approach and reduce homelessness by taking a similar approach?

Thomas Salmi became homeless in Helsinki at the age of 18, when he had to leave his orphanage. He spent three years on the streets before finding help through the Helsinki Deaconess Institute (HDI), an organisation that provides accommodation for homeless Finns.

He said: “When you lose everything, it really doesn’t matter. You’re thinking about suicide: am I going to die? Is it safe? It is cold, especially in the middle of winter. If you’re sleeping outside you might die.”

Now aged 24, Thomas has his own apartment and HDI helped him get his life back on track after heavy alcohol abuse. The offer of a home through Finland’s new legislation does not have a ‘catch’. Even for those with issues including substance or alcohol will be offered accommodation, as long as they are willing to interact with support workers. The rent can be paid through housing benefit and, if wished, people can choose to stay on in the property as a long term solution. 

Thomas said: “They told me that it’s my house. And I asked them – is someone going to tell me, ‘we need this house and you have to go?’ But they told me, ‘No, it’s your house, you can do whatever you want.’ When I have a stable home, I can try to build everything else around it like work, studying, family, friends. But when you’re on the streets, you don’t have any of that.”

The communal areas in some of the HDI apartments also help the tenants make friends and mix in with society. There is a feeling of team effort, and support workers are always available.

The success of Finland’s housing pledge has not gone unnoticed by our own government, especially with the rising rate of homelessness in the UK. It is planning to spend £28 million on ‘Housing First’ schemes with hopes of providing around 1,000 homes. The scheme has been planned to roll out across Manchester, Merseyside and the west Midlands soon.

Some are sceptical about handing over house keys to people who may have alcohol and substance abuse issues. However, Neil Cornthwaite, head of the charity Banabus in Manchester, thinks that if it can work in Finland, it could work here.

There are drawbacks in some cases, such as homes not always being immediately available, and figures show that roughly one in five people return to homelessness at some stage in their life. It can also be pricey. Finland has spent roughly £262k in the past ten years on housing the homeless and supplying support workers. It would take commitment from the UK authorities to follow through with necessary support so that the former homeless can get their lives back in order. If the steps aren’t in place, it would be all too easy to slip back into that way of life.

Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, also believes the scheme will work. He said: “You cannot have good health or a good life without good housing. I’m confident we will show that Housing First can work. I will be asking the government to make this permanent.”

The Minister for Housing and Homelessness, Heather Wheeler, agrees: “No-one is meant to spend their lives on the streets, or without a home to call their own, and evidence shows that Housing First has an incredible rate of success in helping people rebuild their lives.”

The changes in the UK to tackle homelessness are due to take place in 2019 and will hopefully give some relief to some of the thousands of homeless on our streets.

If you’re lucky enough to be buying your own property, in Manchester or anywhere else in England and Wales, a Chartered Surveyor will make sure your new home is in good condition and structurally sound.

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