When he speaks of addressing homelessness, the architect-turned-advocate Rex Hohlbein describes the power inherent in a “critical mass of kindness.” To Hohlbein, the creator of Facing Homelessness, a Seattle-based advocacy organization that seeks to use social media to tell the stories of those on the streets—by sharing a smile, striking up small talk, or offering the occasional helping hand—we all can reaffirm the humanity of people experiencing homelessness and make a difference in their lives. But Hohlbein, like any advocate familiar with homelessness, undoubtedly knows that, while embedding kindness into our interpersonal relationships is of great importance, embedding kindness into our policy has even more potential for righting unjust status quo.
Across the world, advocates of the homeless have found such a policy in the Housing First Model. The model, developed in the early 1990’s by the New York City-based sociologist Sam Tsemberis, inverts the historically dominant model, one commonly referred to as the “staircase model”. Traditionally, homeless individuals are required to graduate through various services, often substance or counseling treatment, in order to obtain housing. Conversely, the Housing First Model places individuals in homes before all else. Only then, Tsemberis and his ever-growing number of like-minded advocates argue, can services like treatment and job placement be successfully administered to, or “wrapped around,” the individual. The model has been accompanied by a plethora of positive results. For instance, a randomized control test in Toronto found that, in the two-year span following housing placement, Housing First participants spent a significantly greater amount of time in stable housing (75.1 percent of this time) than the study participants who were placed through a staircase model (39 percent of the time). A diverse set of physical and mental health improvements accompanied this stable housing: the severity of substance abuse problems was significantly decreased, with evidence suggesting that Housing First participants spent significantly less money on substances like alcohol. The study even found that community functioning improved greatly for Housing First participants. In sum, the Toronto study affirms the Housing First Model’s ability to place individuals experiencing homelessness effectively and in a timely manner. At the same time, just as importantly, it addresses the factors—like substance abuse and impaired opportunity for a healthy connection to community—that cause and perpetuate homelessness.
However, while the model has been celebrated around the world and implemented, as in the United States, by individual organizations and regional governments, Finland has uniquely succeeded in centering Housing First in its national strategy to address homelessness. The Scandinavian nation has, as a result, avoided the spike in homelessness that all of its European neighbors have experienced in recent years. As the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless chronicled in a March 2017 report, Europe is in the midst of a homelessness crisis. Over the course of the past two decades, the report finds, in Denmark, the number of homeless has increased by 23 percent between 2009 and 2015; in the Netherlands, that number was 24 percent. These statistics are even more staggering when one considers that both Denmark and the Netherlands are currently experiencing population growths both near zero percent. And in France the increase was a staggering 50 percent from 2001 to 2012. Finland, conversely, has experienced from 2013 and 2016, a massive 10 percent decrease in homelessness amongst single people. By committing to the core tenants of the Housing First Model on a national level, Finland has benefitted from the model’s ability to help create a more just and equitable society.
Even a casual observer of the Housing First Model could observe that the model’s success depends upon the creation and maintenance of a robust, affordable housing market, for the placement of individuals experiencing homelessness is impossible if there are not living units in which to place those individuals. The Finnish practitioners of the model have clearly made this observation. In applying the model, a synergistic cohort of national, city and municipal, and private forces has collaborated to meet this need. In February 2008, the Finnish government launched the first version of the Finnish Homelessness Reduction programme, referred to as “Paavo I,” which had the ambitious goal of halving chronic homelessness by year 2011 by creating sustainable and permanent solutions. To do so, Paavo I dedicated €13.6 million of national funds to construct 1,250 new dwellings and supported housing places for the chronically homeless. However, the most substantial victory of Paavo I was more than its sheer number of homes created; more importantly, the plan called for the conversion of homeless shelters into permanent residences for the formerly homeless, evidence of the Housing First Model in action. In fact, within the last three years, the nation has converted its last homeless shelter into a permanent residence with 80 independent apartments. “The disappearance of temporary solutions like hostels has completely changed the landscape of Finnish homelessness policy in a very positive way, for vulnerable individuals and in combatting anti-social behavior,” notes Juha Kaakinen, an advocate of the homeless in Finland. By the end of 2011, Paavo I had created a total of 1,519 dwellings and supportive housing units and chronic homelessness had fallen by 28 percent in the span of these three short years.
Though Paavo I was marked by a notable top-down imperative, the strategy also enlisted the commitment of both city governments and the private sector. For example, the City of Helsinki owns well over two thousand support apartments designated for the people currently homeless and those at risk of slipping into that territory. Furthermore, in accordance with national law, the city is required to offer 50 additional homes to this sum from its private rental stock. In addition, the city has paired with non-profit organizations to meet its housing need. Its most fruitful partnership has been with Y-Foundation, an organization that manages, renovates, and constructs a robust housing stock specifically for the marginally housed. In 2013, the city received an additional nine hundred units from the organization.
While the Finnish application of the Housing First Model recognized the primacy of creating and maintaining a robust affordable housing market, embedded in Paavo I and its second iteration, Paavo II, was a commitment to the second essential tenant of the model: the provision of a variety of services to the recently housed. These services, deemed “housing advice,” are specific to the individual, ranging from substance abuse treatment to aid in negotiating with a landlord. The services have been, research suggests, crucial in ensuring the recently housed stay housed, helping these new renters guard themselves against evictions. These services, the Fins have found, are of particular value to historically marginalized populations, including immigrant populations, youths experiencing homelessness, and individuals transitioning out of incarceration, all of which are groups of people disproportionately represented in homeless populations across the globe.
Finland’s application of the Housing First Model performs extremely well in a cost-benefit analysis. Unsurprisingly, the policy comes with large upfront costs, but the model evinces these costs to be wise investments. While the Housing First Model requires investment in services for the newly housed, the model lifts a significant burden from existing costs, as people experiencing homelessness are disproportionately more likely to use expensive services like emergency room care. In total, research suggests that placement through the Housing First Model saved Finland between €9,600 and €15,000 a year. But more importantly, the policy dramatically improves the quality of lives of the formerly homeless, giving them privacy, support from trained personnel, and a sense of dignity that fate has long deprived them.
Nations around the globe ought to take note of the Finnish success in implementing the Housing First Model. The Fins show that with top-down coordination and ideological commitment between national, municipal, and private sector actors, the paradigm concerning homelessness can shift, money from state coffers can be saved, and lives can be improved.