Eradicating homelessness in Finland: the Housing First programme
In 2007, Finland's government decided to adopt a new approach to dealing with homelessness. Setting themselves the ambitious aim of halving long-term homelessness by 2011 and eradicating it by 2015, a working group developed and implemented an integrated strategy based on the Housing First model. Housing First follows the principle of providing each homeless person with permanent housing, accompanied by individually tailored health and support services.
Even though Finland did not eradicate homelessness by 2015, it made considerable progress in reducing long-term homelessness. Through political commitment and the well-managed involvement of several stakeholders, the Finnish government managed to bring down the number of long-term homeless people by 33.3 percent from 3,600 in 2008 to 2,400 in 2015 and create more than 1,500 new homes and packages for long-term homeless people.
In 2007, the so-called Group of the Wise, which was set up by the Finnish Ministry of Environment, presented a report that outlined a new programme “to halve homelessness by 2011 and eliminate it entirely by 2015”. For this, they suggested an integrated approach called Housing First. The basic idea, which can be understood as both a philosophical starting point and a practical guiding concept, was to provide homeless people with a home of their own: “Housing First provides accommodation to homeless people instead of managing homelessness with temporary solutions such as beds in hostels or emergency shelters.” This was to be achieved through ordinary rentals with tenancy contracts and mobile support teams, whose services were adapted to the resident's abilities and needs in terms of social welfare and health.
One of the main measures of this initiative was the enhanced provision of accommodation tailored to homeless people's needs. In total, 1,250 new dwellings were to be available by 2011 in Finland's ten biggest cities, divided into 750 housing options in Helsinki, 125 each in Vantaa and Espoo and 250 for Tampere, Turku, Lahti, Kuopio, Joensuu, Oulu and Jyväskyl combined. This entailed reducing the number of conventional shelters and changing them into rentable accommodation units.
The initiative comprised an Action Plan, which was divided into two phases: PAAVO I and PAAVO II. PAAVO I, running from 2008 till 2011, had the objective of halving long-term homelessness by implementing the Housing First model. This necessitated the provision of the aforementioned social housing options and integrated service packages. The next phase, PAAVO II, sought to eliminate long-term homelessness by focusing on homelessness prevention mechanisms and “hidden homelessness”, which includes people who do not have a home of their own and live insecurely and temporarily with friends or family members.
The challengeDespite major efforts in several European countries to reduce homelessness, from the 1990s onwards, long-term homelessness remained a pressing issue. Until 2008, Finland followed the widely-used staircase approach, where a homeless person moves from “one social rehabilitation step to another, with an apartment awaiting at the highest step”. However, this model did not prove successful in eliminating long-term homelessness. By 2008, there were 7,960 single people and 300 families recorded as homeless. Of these, about 4,200 were living in Helsinki of whom 3,600 fell into the category of long-term homelessness. Hence, the challenge for Finland’s government was to reduce the numbers of the long-term homeless by providing sufficient housing options and social welfare services that addressed their needs, so that eventually homelessness could be eliminated.
The public impact
According to the Y-Foundation, a national foundation seeking to enhance social justice through developing social housing, Finland is the only European country where homelessness has decreased in recent years. By 2016, the number of social housing apartments had almost doubled from 35,404 apartments in 1985 to 67,764 in 2016. However, the main objectives of halving long-term homelessness by 2011 (PAAVO I) and eliminating it entirely by 2015 (PAAVO II) were only partially achieved.
While the original goal of PAAVO I was not achieved, levels fell by 28 percent from 2008 to 2011. Furthermore, the quantitative targets for new dwellings were exceeded, with 1,519 housing units being delivered instead of the goal of 1,250. PAAVO II was more clearly focused on the prevention of homelessness, with the overarching aim of eliminating long-term homelessness by 2015, which was not achieved. Nevertheless, over the period of seven years, long-term homelessness had decreased by 1,589 people, marking a decline of 35 percent. So, even though Finland had not achieved zero homelessness by the end of 2015, the country managed to achieve a great deal in a relatively short period of time, with total homelessness falling by 16 percent between 2012 and 2016 and long-term homelessness by 33 percent between 2008 and 2015.
Finland's achievement is particularly striking in the European context, where in most countries the numbers of homeless people increased. The UK, for instance, registered an increase of 134 percent in people sleeping rough between 2009 and 2015, and in 2017 the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (Feantsa) called for EU member states “to put eliminating homelessness at the core of their social policy agendas” due to the “alarming evidence of rising homelessness.” In addition to those quantitative targets, the policy fundamentally improved the quality of life of formerly homeless people, “giving them privacy, support from trained personnel, and a sense of dignity that fate has long deprived them”.
As a result of these achievements, Finland has since then been presented as a positive example at several international conferences and reviews, inspiring other countries to implement an integrated strategy based on the Housing First model.
Written by Johanna Hopp
Finland's new strategy to tackle long-term homelessness was particularly effective in involving several stakeholders from national and municipal government and NGOs in the policy design. The initiating body for the new policy was Finland's Ministry of Environment. In 2007, the Ministry set up the Group of the Wise, a working group consisting of the director of the City of Helsinki's Social Services, a member of parliament, the Bishop of Helsinki, and the managing director of the Y-Foundation. The Y-Foundation itself represents several stakeholders, such as the Finnish Red Cross, the Church Council, and the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities. The Group of the Wise was set up with the aim of conducting a preparatory study on whose basis a second group - the programme working group - would specify the ideas. “The task of the programme working group was to make concrete the proposals contained in the Group of the Wise report and evaluate what would be required to implement them.”
At the outset, Finland's government ensured the engagement of the participating cities throughout the country. They were able to articulate their needs and receive the required staff and funding for successfully eradicating long-term homelessness. “In accordance with the proposal of the programme working group, the participating cities had to draw up action plans which identified the need for housing solutions and support, preventive measures, projects to be implemented and other measures. The plans were to be ready by 31 March 2008, after which, by 30 May 2008, the state and cities together would have drawn up letters of intent which defined the state's participation in the funding of the measures.”
The Finnish government showed a high degree of commitment to both PAAVO I and PAAVO II. The initiative was dependent on that commitment, since the Housing First model involved “a decision in principle”, regarding the way homelessness is framed as a holistic challenge. Several sources cite political commitment as one of the key factors for the success of the policy, which is seen as the “result of dedicated cooperation between the state, municipalities and NGOs”.
A report published in 2014 entitled The Finnish Homelessness Strategy: An International Review reflects on the success of the Finnish approach: “There are undoubtedly several background factors at play, but key issues include the commitment of the parties with power and resources with regard to dealing with homelessness and a reasonable mutual understanding of the methods used to achieve results. This does not refer to any sort of general commitment; it refers to real people and organisations taking responsibility in the right place at the right time. Decisive moments of commitment and shared will for the Finnish programme include the long-term plan by Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen's Government that has lasted past the government term, and ensuring its annual investment and operating funding.”
Additionally, Juhi Kaakinen, CEO of the Y-Foundation, highlighted the following factor: “A strong political will has made the application of the Housing First approach possible. Different sectors have set about solving the problem of homelessness through cooperation with each other. Governments, regardless of party composition, have stood behind the principle.” Hence, there was solid political commitment at the government level, and this facilitated a smooth transition towards a new model, despite the fact that Housing First turned established measures to reduce and prevent homelessness on their head.
Public confidenceThere was not enough evidence to make a comprehensive assessment of public confidence in the policy reform and the institutions executing it. Nevertheless, compared to other European nations, Finland ranks among the countries with the highest political trust in its national parliament, political parties, and politicians. Even though this does not allow one to conclude that public confidence was high for Finland’ programme to reduce homelessness, it provides a baseline for judging the public’s general attitude toward policy reforms.
Clarity of objectives
From the start, the main objectives were clearly stated:
- Halving long-term homelessness by 2011 (PAAVO I)
- Eliminating long-term homelessness entirely by 2015 (PAAVO II)
However, the amount of accommodation required to achieve those objectives was changed throughout the policy design process. The Group of the Wise initially suggested 2,500 new dwelling or care places for homeless people as a quantitative target. Initially, the Group released in a policy document that, of these, “1,600 would be in Helsinki, 400 elsewhere in the Helsinki region and 500 in other growth centres that are suffering from homelessness”.
After some amendments, due to differences of opinion between the Group of the Wise, the programme working group, the various city councils, and other stakeholders, the final number was adjusted to 1,250 new dwellings or supported housing or care places to be available by 2011. Of these, 750 would be in Helsinki, 125 each in Vantaa and Espoo, and 250 were planned for Tampere, Turku, Lahti, Kuopio, Joensuu, Oulu and Jyväskyl.
Strength of evidence
There were several mechanisms in place to ensure that sufficient evidence was available. First of all, the government was able to draw on the homelessness reduction programme from 2001-2005, whose data provided useful insights for further policy steps.
Secondly, the Housing Finance and Development Centre of Finland [Asumisen rahoitus- ja kehittämiskeskus] (ARA) has produced an annual report on homelessness since 1987, which has provided “an indicator of trends of homelessness”. This report informed the new strategy, which focused on tackling long-term homelessness rather than producing short-term outcomes, as had been the case in previous years.
Thirdly and most importantly, one of the main tasks of the Group of the Wise was to evaluate what would be required to implement Housing First. This evaluation revealed three main problems that affected the previous strategies to mitigate homelessness:
- “Matching: Support measures directed to the homeless often did not even meet the needs of the long-term homeless, or simply did not reach them. In addition, new people were becoming homeless all the time which indicates gaps in the support system.
- “Implementation: Implementation of the preferential treatment intended for the long-term homeless was slow, and there were many reasons for that. The lack of appropriate building sites had caused the most problems.
- “Support: Insufficient support had been provided. The problem had been a lack of finance, coordination and appropriate support.”
The Group of the Wise took account of these problems in identifying the next steps. However, as the 2010 Synthesis Report explains: “In Finland the ‘Group of the Wise' have had the responsibility to prove the evidence and to develop innovative ideas on this basis with the background of their own experiences in the field. Some of the main elements of the strategy are clearly justified by research at the European and international level, though more robust research might still be needed to evaluate concrete measures and their effects.”
From the outset, the programme working group was responsible for establishing the ethical, economic and legal foundations for eradicating homelessness and putting forward concrete policy proposals to achieve this aim. This entailed providing a clear funding plan for the reforms, which were costly, due to the large upfront investments necessary for providing new dwelling places and enough trained personnel in the homeless sector. Juha Kaakinen, CEO of the Y-Foundation, admitted that this would cost money, but added: “there is ample evidence from many countries that shows it is always more cost-effective to aim to end homelessness instead of simply trying to manage it. Investment in ending homelessness always pays back, to say nothing of the human and ethical reasons.”
Before implementing the Housing First model in 2008, the working group commissioned a pilot phase testing the financial efficiency of the new approach. For this, fifteen homeless people were observed for five months before moving into supported housing, and then once again for five months, while staying in supported housing. The results showed that the intensified support and accommodation provided delivered annual savings of about EUR21,000. This large sum can be explained by the savings due to the reduced numbers of hospital visits and a reduction in the use of intoxicant rehabilitation services.
From 2008 until 2011, the government set aside EUR80m for investment grants and EUR10.4m was “dedicated to covering up to 50 percent of the salary costs of additional support personnel with direct customer contact with long-term homeless persons in the newly developed projects”. Additionally, the municipalities and the Finnish Slot Machine Association [Raha-automaattiyhdistys] (RAY) contributed EUR18m for final assistance and promised EUR2.5m “for the acquisition of supported housing for newly released prisoners”. Combined with “another EUR80m for subsidised interest rate loans by the government, the total budget for the programme from 2008-2011 amounts to EUR201.1m”.
Furthermore, Finland's reform coincided with well-focused efforts at the EU level to eradicate long-term homelessness. In 2008, the European Parliament developed a policy framework for fighting homelessness and housing exclusion, eventually adopting a written declaration on ending street homelessness through integrative strategies, thereby bringing the issue of homelessness to the forefront of EU policymaking.
Hence, in addition to clear responsibilities for ensuring the feasibility of the new strategy and a solid funding scheme, Finland's government benefited from the momentum at European level to reduce homelessness substantially through an integrated approach at the national level.
The establishment of the Group of the Wise and the additional programme working group was essential for the successful management of Housing First. Through these groups, the Ministry of Environment ensured that relevant stakeholders from the public and private sectors were involved throughout the development and implementation of the programme. The Group of the Wise collaborated with ARA to track the numbers of homeless people, making sure that annual progress was made (see also Evidence above).
Another mechanism for securing sufficient progress was the 2010 Synthesis Report, written on behalf of the European Commission. This report provided a Peer Review evaluation of Finland's Housing First approach in the European context, marking “a very useful opportunity for Finland to receive feedback on their strategy”, before embarking on the second phase from 2012 till 2015.
While in many other countries, NGOs might play a greater role in service provision for homeless people, this report highlights the fact that the Ministry of Environment combined clear political will with full responsibility for housing policy. “The Programme was implemented by letters of intent between state authorities and the 10 largest Finnish cities, in which detailed agreements were laid down on the concrete projects planned and funded in the relevant city. Clear responsibilities were defined on the level of the central government (involving the Ministry of the Environment, responsible for housing policies and lead coordinator of the programme, the Ministry of Health and Social Services and the Ministry of Justice and a number of national agencies responsible for funding of housing and other services and for the criminal sanction system) and the municipalities.”
The Ministry of Environment also established two monitoring and steering groups, which were responsible for monitoring the implementation of the programme. These steering groups met on a regular basis: by June 2010, the full steering group had met three times and the smaller steering group 15 times.
Over the years, Finland's government has established several mechanisms, evaluations and reports to enable them to monitor the success of their policies for tackling homelessness. The country has been a pioneer both in reducing homelessness and measuring progress during that time. The Group of the Wise was therefore able to draw on a set of metrics that were already place before the launch of Housing First. However, these measures had their limitations, and the reports served the function of indicating those limitations of the measurement process, so they could then be addressed before the next policy cycle.
One of those measures is ARA's annual report on homelessness, which both informed and tracked the reform's progress. The report uses data on the number of homeless people derived from statistical market surveys that are carried out annually in 297 municipalities, thus involving different stakeholders in the data collection process. As the sociologist Volker Busch-Geertseema states: “the Finnish example is one of the earliest showing that the annual production of national data on homelessness is possible and helps in the evaluation of the effects of targeted policies”. This report consistently monitored the total numbers of the homeless and was complemented by the data the Y-Foundation collected on the progress made in providing housing packages for homeless people.
The Peer Review (see Management above) played an important role in obtaining a clearer picture on potential changes and improvements of the second phase (PAAVO II). For instance, it became obvious that in this phase more attention ought to be paid to education and training issues as well to a better assessment of the preexisting stock of housing units before any decisions to invest in the costly redevelopment of new homes.
Another mechanism which enhanced the measurement of Housing First's impact and limitations was a 2014 evaluation of the Finnish strategy to tackle homelessness, which was commissioned by the Ministry of Environment. This report, which was carried out by an international research group, sought to inform the third policy cycle of Finland's homelessness strategy, commencing in 2016. In terms of limitations, this report highlighted the fact that “there may be scope for some further analysis, for example systematic comparison of the different models of Housing First that are in existence, including scattered housing and the different examples of communal Housing First”. In addition, the report called for an improvement in the assessment of the cost-effectiveness of the Housing First approach in Finland.
However, there are several limitations to these materials, especially to the data gathered by ARA. Riikka Luomanen, author of the Host Country Report on long-term homelessness, which was published by the Ministry of Environment in 2010, notes that it is “difficult to estimate the exact number of homeless, because a person is defined as homeless only when they apply for services within the public sector... In addition, the basis for the definitions vary by municipality, and the level of accuracy of the information can vary annually even within the municipalities.” Furthermore, the data being used so far is essentially administrative data, which could be extended to include survey data. This would add the voices of homeless people and provide a more precise impression of the current state of homelessness and the effectiveness of measures to tackle it.
Despite these preexisting measures and reports, arriving at a precise definition of “long-term homelessness” was a challenge. As the Synthesis Report indicated, the operational method applied at the outset “left too much room for interpretation”, and therefore hampered the measurement of concrete numbers.
Aligning the different stakeholders was one of the key challenges for the implementation of the Housing First model. The initiative, which was set up and coordinated by Finland's Ministry of Environment, relied on the joint efforts of several different institutions. Hence, coordinating mutual efforts between the government, municipalities and cities, service providers, employees and residents, was crucial.
Furthermore, the government set aside extra funding to be available for the municipalities for providing flats and services. This additional funding was an incentive for the municipalities to implement Housing First.
However, the Housing First model required those working on homelessness, such as well-established NGOs, to modify their approach. Housing First inverts traditional methods such as the staircase model, where providing housing to the homeless is considered as the last step of a series of measures. As The Guardian reported in 2017, the unconditional offer of housing was hard for some people in NGOs to accept, as they “had previously been working with different sets of values”.
Retrospectively, the strong political commitment and careful communication strategies can be highlighted as key features for aligning the different sectors. “There was a strong political will to find new solutions for homelessness. There were a few local reactions concerning the location of new service facilities. However, those were mainly overcome by open interaction with the neighbourhoods.”
Furthermore, the direct impact of the new action plan for reducing and preventing homelessness was a fall in the number of homeless. The decline in homelessness “created an atmosphere of positive change in many cities, which is a phenomenon that reinforces itself. People started to discuss homelessness in a new way, as a challenge and an issue that can be influenced, as well as actions that are not only humanely right, but also financially cost-effective for the city.”
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