Finland has found the answer to homelessness. It couldn’t be simpler

A homeless man in London

Harry Quilter-Pinner

“I was born in Liverpool and grew up on a council estate. I had a clean home, toys and nice meals as a kid. When I was nine years old, the sexual abuse started. My abusers made me feel special. They gave me gifts, moneys, cigarettes and sweets. When I was 13 I ran away from home and soon found myself in the murky world of prostitution on the streets. My life was out of control.”

This is how it all started for Simon. I met him 23 years later at SCT, a local charity I help to run in east London that offers support to people who are homeless and face alcohol and drug addiction. He used to make me coffee every morning at the social enterprise cafe we run. In the intervening period he had spent years in and out of hostels and institutions, as well as long spells on the streets.

When I met him, Simon was sober and working for the first time in years. He said at the time that SCT “offered me the opportunity to get my life back on track. Life is worth living now. I’m looking forward to my future.” Tragically, this future wasn’t to be: soon afterwards he decided to return to the streets and died as a result.

I would like to be able to say that Simon’s story is an exception. But in reality it is all too familiar, as new statistics published by the Guardian showed on Wednesday. The number of homeless people dying on the streets or in temporary accommodation in the UK has more than doubled over the past five years to more than one per week. The average age of a rough sleeper when they die is 43, about half the UK life expectancy.

The tragedy is that it’s entirely within our power to do something about it: homelessness is not a choice made by the individual, it is a reality forced by government policy. As homelessness has rocketed in the UK – up 134% since 2010 – it has fallen by 35% in Finland over a similar period of time. The Finnish government is now aiming to abolish it altogether in the coming years.

I recently travelled to Finland to understand how it had done this. It turns out its solution is painfully simple and blindingly obvious: give homes to homeless people. As Juha Kaakinen, who has led much of the work on “housing first” in Finland, explained to me when I met him in Helsinki, “this takes housing as a basic human right” rather than being conditional on engaging in services for addictions or mental health.
This is fundamentally different to our model in the UK, where stable accommodation is only provided as a “reward” for engaging in treatment services. The problem with this is obvious if you stop and think about it: how do we expect people to address complex personal problems while exposed to the chaos of life on the streets?

Sceptics will argue that giving homes to homeless people is a recipe for disaster. Aren’t we just subsidising addiction? Won’t we end up with huge bills when it all goes wrong? Don’t people need an incentive to get their lives back on track and engage in services?

Actually, no. The evidence from Finland – as well as numerous other pilot schemes across the world – shows the opposite is true. When people are given homes, homelessness is radically reduced, engagement in support services goes up and recovery rates from addiction are comparable to a “treatment first” approach. Even more impressive is that there are overall savings for government, as people’s use of emergency health services and the criminal justice system is lessened.

At the last election, the government committed to pilot a housing first approach in the UK. This isn’t good enough – we don’t need another pilot. During my time in Finland I didn’t see one homeless person. Within a few hours of coming back to London I walked past more than 100 rough sleepers queuing for food in the rain, just a few minutes from parliament. What we need is action. Ending homelessness is eminently achievable if we have the moral capacity and will to take proper action. We must overcome our prejudices and our apathy. The status quo is simply not good enough.

• Harry Quilter-Pinner is director of strategy at SCT, a homelessness and addictions charity in east London. He is also a research fellow at IPPR, the UK’s progressive thinktank. He writes here in a personal capacity

The Jobs-Housing Hamster Wheel

Tuesday, August 21, 2018
In This Issue: HUD's RAD Program—The Promise and Peril ● What Future for America’s Small Cities? ● The Jobs-Housing Hamster Wheel ● Also: Jobs ● Shelter Shorts ● Events ● You Said It! +
In Memoriam: Jeremy Nowak
Jeremy Nowak, a founder of The Reinvestment Fund and founding board member of the Opportunity Finance Network, passed away on July 28. Nowak's insights and challenges will be missed in the field. He wrote for Shelterforce about expanding our view of community to include entire regions, focusing on “people” not just places, and considering mixed-income housing and locating housing in areas of opportunity long before they were called that. Read More...
Rick Rybeck, Just Economics LLC
A deeper dive into the cause of high housing prices reveals that it is not the price of lumber, bricks, or labor that accounts for high or low housing prices—the controlling factor most often is the price of land. Some analysts have documented that the 2008 recession, typically reported as the collapse of a “housing bubble,” is more accurately described as the collapse of… Read Full Article
Shelterforce Staff
HUD's Latest Assault on Fair Housing | Decriminalizing Homelessness | "Buying the Block" | FEMA's Roadblocks In Puerto Rico | Public Transport And Health | More… Quick Takes From Our Editors
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Alan Mallach, Center for Community Progress
While the story of the predatory lenders that victimized millions of homeowners and home buyers with subprime mortgages in the late 1990s and early 2000s is well known, far fewer people are aware of the similar practices that played a crucial part in the gutting of... Read Full Article
Shamus Roller and Jessica Cassella, National Housing Law Project
HUD’s RAD program facilitates the privatization of public housing in order to preserve and repair aging infrastructure. But, as with privatization of any public asset, there will always be promises and perils on the path. Here are a few of them… Read Full Article
TODAY! Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2 p.m. EDT | Building Healthy, Equitable Communities Through Comprehensive Long-Range Planning | This webinar from Changelab Solutions will look at building health and equity into long-range plans by discussing how place-based strategies are central to health equity, building a framework categorizing the elements of healthy places, and how to organize long-range plans using health equity concepts.
TODAY! Tuesday, Aug. 21, 3 p.m. EDT | Voter Mobilization: Getting Out the Vote! | Our Homes, Our Votes presents this final webinar presentation in a 6-part series. Getting out the vote is no longer just about election day. Learn about the best ways to engage low-income renters in communities with early voting or vote-by-mail options. Presenters will also discuss considerations for providing rides to the polls and coordinating election day reminder calls.
Thursday, Aug. 23, 12 p.m. EDT | Creative Placemaking on Vacant Properties: Lessons Learned from the Field | Center for Community Progress presents this webinar to highlight key findings from the new report, Creative Placemaking on Vacant Properties: Lessons Learned from Four Cities, which details challenges faced, lessons learned, and impacts of efforts to employ creative placemaking as a tool to revitalize vacant properties.
Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2 p.m. EDT | All In Webinar: Data Sharing Across Sectors—Challenges and Opportunities | While the importance of data in our collective efforts to improve community health is widely agreed upon, the way in which we leverage and apply data is not. The newest report from the BUILD Health Challenge features the five most common data challenges faced by cross-sector teams participating in BUILD. In this webinar, learn about top takeaways from the report and hear what strategies teams use in the face of real-world challenges.
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You Said It!

There’s more to loneliness than feeling blue. @Shelterforce shares how addressing loneliness is an important part of building healthy communities, —CountyHealthRankings, via Twitter

Great story Lillian Ortiz @Shelterforce on low-income renters organizing to shift tide of #gentrification #displacement. Here's more rent data for various CA counties plus #affordablehousing #sustainability policy solutions. —Collin Tateishi, via Twitter

If the nonprofit housing sector were to take the potential for sexual harassment of residents by employees or contractors seriously, what might that look like? Thanks @Shelterforce for such a timely and important article. —Philadelphia Association of CDCs, via Twitter

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