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Daily Briefing: Finnish Homelessness Policy

27 Feb 2023

At a glance

On the first delegation trip of the Ministry of Construction to Finland, Germany’s Federal Minister, Klara Geywitz (Social Democrats), explored solutions to one of the most pressing social policy issues in Germany and across the globe: homelessness and the affordability of housing. In Finland, it has long been agreed that housing is a fundamental right. Let us take a closer look at Finnish housing and anti-homelessness policies, and what they could mean for other countries.

What is happening with Finnish homelessness policy?

Last week, Germany’s Federal Minister for Construction, Klara Geywitz, and various members of the German Bundestag (lower chamber of parliament) and journalists, visited Helsinki. The visit’s agenda was to find out how Finland is successfully combating homelessness and to what extent this could be transferred to Germany. 

Since the introduction of “Housing First”, Finland has more than halved homelessness, from 8,260 homeless people (in 2008) to 3,686 homeless people in 2022. Geywitz herself had many questions, for instance how the Finnish concepts work and what Finland does with EU foreign nationals who are homeless?

About 20 kilometres from Helsinki, Geywitz met Heikki Kakko in the Väinölä housing project. The 68-year-old has lived here for three years and shows her his small flat. He tells the minister why he ended up here: After his company went bankrupt, financial ruin followed. No job, no money and in the end no flat.

“Everyone in society deserves a second chance”, Kakko said, “whether you slip into homelessness because of debt, alcohol or drugs”. He sees his own unconditional flat, i.e., the unconditional state guarantee of housing, as a stepping stone to a normal life. This is made possible by the Finnish state’s “Housing First” programme. For him, it has been running for three years now; the idea is much older.

What is in it for you?

The turning point in Finnish homeless policy was the 1980s. The death of many homeless people in several particularly cold winters in a row triggered a social debate. The end result was a cross-party decision that housing is a fundamental right. The Finnish concept is to provide housing to every Finnish homeless person unconditionally, if possible.

Our regular readers will be aware already that we covered the plight of unsheltered homeless people in August 2022. An international comparison shows that in the US, there are 174 homeless for every 100,000 people - in percentage terms, 0.17%. In the EU, only 11 of the 27 member states have lower per capita homeless rates. 

A key difference, though, lies in the distinction between homeless people and unsheltered homeless people. And this difference is exactly what Finland’s social policy focuses on: sheltering the homeless, in the short run, and providing them with apartments, in the longer run.

The assistance in Finland is based on two pillars: foundations such as the “Y-Foundation” or the “Blue Cross” build and/or buy flats and make them available. The homeless person is the tenant of the flat, the rent is paid by the state. In addition, social services such as medical and psychological care and also support in dealing with authorities are offered. The use of social services is voluntary and not a prerequisite for keeping the flat. The services are financed by the Ministry of Social Affairs STEA and also by the European Structural Fund.

The “Y-Foundation” is one of the largest providers of “Housing First” services in Finland, founded in 1985. It now has more than 10,000 flats and is supported by many civil society organisations. There are different housing concepts: individual flats spread across the city or housing projects, also outside, with several housing units and common rooms. There, social services are offered directly on site.

When visiting the homeless newspaper “ISORNO” in Helsinki, though, Germany’s Federal Minister for Construction learned that not all homeless people are accepted in the “Housing First” programme. 

According to Janne Hukka, the director of ISORNO, EU foreign nationals do not appear in the Finnish homeless statistics. There are other projects for them, such as warming rooms and newspaper sales. The ISORNO newspaper’s selling price is €10, of which the sellers get to keep €5. 

What happens next?

In the context of Geywitz’s visit, the key question is that of the transferability of such concepts to Germany (and other EU countries). According to Kai-Gerrit Venske, a specialist for homelessness at Caritas in Berlin, Germany, “Housing First” has impressive success figures - but he fears that this could obscure the main problem in Germany: the glaring lack of affordable housing, especially too little social housing.

Shortly before flying back to Berlin, Geywitz concluded: “One secret of political success in Finland is continuity”. The Finns have defined a political goal across party lines and pursued it over legislative periods and governments. Such bipartisan support and continuity is required in countries across the world in combating homelessness and the individual tragedy such a predicament entails.

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