Finland's "Housing First" policy tackles homelessness through the provision of stable, enduring, judegement-free and affordable accommodation. Juha Kaakinen, CEO of the Y-Foundation, explains that, under the principles established by the policy, "you get your home unconditionally. You're not expected to fix all your problems before you are given a rental contract. It's only afterwards that you get given support if you need it."
This idea is breathtakingly simple, but also in complete contrast to what happens in the rest of Europe, where, all too often, housing is viewed as a reward for those who get their lives back on track. Without a roof over their heads, many homeless people find this to be an insurmountable hurdle.
The approach is working, too. Finland's rate of all categories of homelessness has been decreasing year-on-year, and the country has all-but eradicated rough sleeping.
"A series of accidents"
Juha Kaakinen did not set out to run a foundation that provided affordable housing. His career began in the 1980s, when he worked as a social worker within Helsinki's homeless service, where he then became a manager. Next, he went to work in a completely different sector for two decades. "I came back to homelessness later," he says "because I had unfinished business, and when I came back I had a fresh perspective".
His return came at a time when the Finnish government's approach to housing was beginning to shift. In the early 2000s, it turned reducing homelessness into a shared goal, and focused on humanising the people affected. Juha Kaakinen acted as the secretary to the working group that, in 2008, came up with the Housing First model, and for five years after its creation, he was Programme Leader to the National Programme.
If his work came about by a "series of accidents", Juha Kaakinen finds it deeply fulfilling. "It's an area where you see very concrete results, and can find solutions both on a personal level and systemically." It is also, for him, an ethical imperative: "It is very difficult for me to understand how we can have homelessness at all in Western Europe, which is so economically prosperous... We need affordable housing. We just have to speak out loudly about it. This is a problem which can and should be solved".
Housing as a foundation for life
The Y-Foundation believes in understanding the individual needs of each homeless person, which means getting to grips with the reasons why they became homeless in the first place. That way they can be put into touch with the right support mechanisms as they establish their new home and from it, their new life.
For Juha Kaakinen, it is fundamentally important that the accommodation provided is a permanent solution. Finland has very few remaining hostels because it wants to do away with model of providing temporary support in favour of more lasting solutions. However, once provided with a roof, the tenant must pay their own (affordable) rent. They might use their income or social support to do this, and they might need practical help at first, "but it is important that they have precisely the same rights and obligations as everyone else".
It's also essential that the homeless are not viewed as a category apart. "If you want to be inclusive, you have to treat the homeless in an equal way", says Kaakinen.
Find out more about Finland's pioneering approach to homelessness
Juha Kaakinen was nominated as our fourth #Europeanhero by the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA), which advocates the Finnish approach to tackling homelessness.
If you would like to find out more about the work of his foundation, you can read about it in English, on its website.