Q: How do you solve a problem like homelessness? A: Speak to Finland

A woman begs for money on a street in downtown Helsinki.
A woman begs for money on a street in downtown Helsinki. Copyright Reuters
Copyright Reuters
By Chris Harris
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As governments around Europe grapple with how to tackle rising homelessness, one country stands head and shoulders above the rest.


Governments around Europe are struggling to tackle rising homelessness... except one.

Experts say Finland has all but solved the problem of rough sleepers on its streets.

It had more than 18,000 people considered homeless in 1987, according to statistics from Finland’s Housing Finance and Development Centre.

By 2016 that figure had fallen to 7,000, the majority of which were temporarily living with friends or relatives, rather than sleeping on the streets.

Euronews looks at how the Nordic country did it.

Provide housing

It sounds an obvious solution to the problem of homelessness. There is, however, nuance to Finland’s policy.

In many countries, homeless people are generally not given housing until they have solved or been treated for the problems that got them onto the streets in the first place, whether they are financial, health or addiction issues.

But Finland has a “housing first” initiative, which sees rough sleepers given permanent accommodation regardless of their progress.

“When you have shelters you can have shelter from the storm but you need a home to lead a decent life,” Juha Kaakinen, chief executive of the Y Foundation, told Euronews.

“You need to have housing, it’s your basic human right and then you can start solving the issues with the help of professionals if needed.”

Get rid of homeless shelters

Finland has massively increased its housing stock — some of it supported — to help get people off the streets.

It has coincided with a huge reduction in the number of temporary homeless shelters.

In 2008, Helsinki had 558 hostels and shelters. By 2016, there were just 52. Over the same period, the number of supported housing units and independent rental apartments in Finland’s capital had leapt from 2,585 to 3,742.

“Shelter has become quite expensive,” said Freek Spinnewijn, director of the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA). “People tend to think that shelter is understaffed and therefore cheap.

“But if you’re in a shelter you are more likely to be in contact with prison services, police and justice.

“If they are in a shelter they will accumulate health problems and then wait until it’s unbearable and end up in emergency hospitals or emergency psychiatric care, which is very expensive.

“These services might not want to discharge people because they know they’re discharging them onto the streets. So they prolong, artificially, their stay in very expensive services.

“So if you take all the costs together — certainly in countries with high-quality shelter systems — providing housing with support through the housing first approach is the same cost, if not cheaper.”


Ask if housing rough sleepers is more expensive

“It’s difficult to do a cost-benefit analysis but if you speak with the people in Finland they will tell you over time it is certainly not more expensive,” Spinnewijn told Euronews. “But you need additional investment to make the transition from shelters to housing."

“I would say some results show that when a homeless person gets proper housing with support, cost savings for the society is €15,000 per person per year,” added Kaakinen, whose foundation has worked with Finnish cities to tackle homelessness.

“Everybody who does a little bit of research knows that it can be done. It’s not a money issue because it saves money for society. It’s not too expensive. So it’s hard for me to understand.”

Get long-term support from the government

Kaakinen said getting across-the-board support for doing something about homelessness was a key reason for Finland’s success.

“There has been wide political consensus,” he said. “We don’t want to leave any out of the society.


“Finland is a small country so we need everybody to be involved in society.”

The country first got serious about tackling rough sleeping in 2008 and even changes of government have not knocked them off course.

“The main thing for me is the lack of partnerships,” Kaakinen added. “In Finland, it’s been a national effort: state ministries, big cities and NGOs have all worked together to reduce homelessness.

“This is something that seems to be missing in many other countries.”

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