Finland takes a Housing First approach to homelessness

Cecilia Tredget, Managing Director from the East of England LGA discusses what lessons we could learn from their very different approach to the problem of homelessness.

While homelessness has rocketed in the UK – up 134% since 2010 – it has fallen by 35% in Finland. Here Cecilia Tredget, Managing Director from the East of England LGA discusses what lessons we could learn from their very different approach to the problem.

Job loss, family breakdown, escalating debt, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, mental health problems – every homeless person’s situation is unique and complex.

Here in the UK, our approach to tackling this growing problem works on the premise that the homeless person has to sort out their personal issues before they are given permanent accommodation.

However, this approach is problematic and fraught with difficulties for those affected who have to address complex needs while exposed to the chaos of life on the streets.

In Finland they are taking a completely different approach. The Housing Frist model gives them a home first and tackles the personal issues second.

With homelessness continuing to rise, this is the time to start to look for alternative solution to this growing social challenge.

How does it work?

The Finns introduced their Housing First plan in 2007.

Under this, those that are homeless are given permanent housing on a normal lease. Tenants pay rent and are entitled to receive housing benefits. This is tailored to their income. The rest is covered by local government.

At the same time as being given a home, they receive access to support services.

This could include receiving financial and debt advice, substance abuse support or counselling.

All of this is managed centrally by the Y-Foundation, which is effectively a housing association that specialises in housing homeless people and vulnerable groups.

Y-Foundation purchases housing units and lets them to its target groups through local authorities and local partners.

Increasingly Y-Foundation promotes mixed housing schemes in its projects. The rents are kept lower than market price and are monitored through market surveys.

Y-Foundation reinvests its profits into its housing stock and, by using state services for rehabilitation and a market approach, it combines the strengths of both systems.

The whole enterprise involves a wide partnership of people: the state, volunteers, municipalities and NGOs.

This is something which could be replicated in the UK. But it would need a whole systems approach to tackling homelessness which would also involve increasing housing supply.

This is why Juha Kaakinen, Chief Executive of Y- Foundation Finland was invited to speak at a partnership event between the East of England LGA, District Councils Network, national LGA and the National Housing Federation held earlier this month.

Building a future

In Finland, increasing the supply of affordable rental housing was a critical part of the approach.

The Y-Foundation used existing social housing, bought flats from the private market and built new housing blocks.

In 2016, Y-Foundation had a total of 6,675 apartments and operated in 52 cities and municipalities.

Most of its homes were in central city locations – enabling residents to be close to work opportunities, amenities and support services.

Its aim is that, by 2020, two-thirds of its tenants will be living independently without need for support.

It sounds expensive – but the initial outlay pays dividend in the long run.

After all, as Kaakinen pointed out: “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.”

The evidence seems to show that when people are given homes, homelessness is radically reduced, engagement in support services goes up as does recovery rates from addiction.

This creates overall savings for government, as people’s use of emergency health services and the criminal justice system is lessened.

An innovative approach

Kaakinen believes that the Finnish model can be replicated in the UK.

And a report by homeless charity Crisis has backed this up.

It helped put together a Housing First feasibility study for Liverpool which concluded that a consistent approach to accessing mainstream housing for those experiencing or threatened with homelessness could be arranged through a local lettings approach.

It will need to be supported with significant investment in prevention services, renewed investment in support services and better communication between the criminal justice system and NHS provision.

Further collaboration with landlords, police and courts and a general change in mindset will also be required.

And the Housing First model will need the support of a skilled, well trained and supported core team, a responsive and flexible on-call service and access to learning and work coaching.

Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis said: “This holistic approach has the potential to completely transform the prospects of homeless people today and in the future.

“We hope this report not only shows the feasibility of how services in the Liverpool City Region can be redesigned to end homelessness but can be used as an exemplar to be adapted in other areas both within the UK and in other European cities.”

Work in the East

We realise that this is no quick fix solution to homelessness.

But there is pressure on local councils across the UK to prevent and relieve homelessness thanks to the Homelessness Reduction Act which came into force on 3 April 2018.

And with the approach in Finland so successful, it makes sense to try to learn lessons from this.

Here in the East, some areas have seen increases in the number of rough sleepers that are at least double the national average.

Our conference kick started the conversation between local authority leaders, chief executives and lead members, as well as senior housing officers and housing association representatives in the East of England.

It also examined what the key challenges are, what local authorities currently do to tackle homelessness and what opportunities exist for greater collaboration and integration locally and regionally.

In Finland the goal is to end long-term homelessness – and this is now close to being realised.

We can do the same thing here in the UK if we work together.

As Kaakinen says this is about making housing “a basic human right” rather than being conditional on engaging in services for addictions or mental health.

Our conference was the first step towards changing perceptions to embrace this idea.


A Systems Approach to Homelessness and Housing Supply conference took place on the 21 June 2018 at the Wellcome Genome Campus Conference Centre in Hinxton, Cambridgeshire.

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