A radically new approach to homelessness

A very interesting approach to homelessness in Finland has seen dramatic results. In the UK there were an estimated 7% more rough sleepers last year. Germany has seen an increase of 35% over the last 2 years, and in France over an 11-year period the numbers are up by 50%. In Finland over a 7-year period the number of long term homeless fell by 35%. There are almost no rough sleepers in Finland now, and their homelessness figures include people not sleeping rough, but staying long-term with friends or family because they have no home of their own.

The National Audit Office tells us that in Britain:

"There is a high prevalence of mental illness and alcohol and drug dependency among rough sleepers. Of the 70% of rough sleepers who had a support needs assessment recorded, 47% had mental health support needs, 44% had alcohol support needs and 35% had drug support needs."

This tells us that for most rough sleepers alcoholism, drug abuse and mental illness feature among the reasons for their situation.

Finland's policy, introduced in 2007, is called Housing First. Instead of requiring people to solve those problems before they are housed, as most countries do, it does the opposite, housing them so that they can better address those problems. The reasoning is that alcoholism, drug abuse and mental illness are all more difficult to solve for someone living on the streets.

Tenants are housed in apartments, entitled to housing benefits and pay rent. What they cannot meet out of income is met by local government. Crucially they receive support services to help with their difficulties. Trained personnel are available to help with financial problems, advice about housing and benefits, and to provide therapy for addiction and mental problems. Although the programme costs money, there are savings for government from lower use of emergency health services and from less involvement of the criminal justice system.

Finland has purpose built or converted premises into self-contained apartments, and has turned all of its homeless shelters into such accommodation. Some of these have communal areas where tenants can interact and form communities. An article in the Christian Science Monitor examined some of the costs. Between 2008 and 2015, 3,500 apartments were produced at a cost of £294m, or £84,000 each. Over that time the estimated saving to the medical and emergency services no longer required is put at £14,200 per previously homeless person per year. This suggests that the project's costs might be recouped over a 6-year period.

The results of the Finnish approach are remarkable, and they suggest that their alternative approach brings a viable solution to a growing and distressing problem. There is a very strong case for a detailed study of their methods and consideration given to trying a similar approach in the UK more broadly.