In November 2016 I had the fantastic opportunity to travel to Finland with a BBC Bristol reporter / researcher, Rachel Stonehouse, and a BBC cameraman, Jez Toogood, as part of a BBC Inside Out West special program on homelessness in the region.
We spent three days in Helsinki to investigate Finland’s claim to have significantly reduced the number of people sleeping rough in the country.
The visit was hosted by Juha Kaakinen, CEO of the Y Foundation, and we were very fortunate to spend time in several housing projects talking with the service providers and the residents.
The Y Foundation aims “to exert influence to make sure that no-one in Finland needs to be homeless”. They are managing to actually achieve this by offering affordable rental accommodation to people who are having difficulties in finding a home for themselves through the development of the Finnish Housing First model.
My subsequent feedback to the questions asked by the Y Foundation on my return to the UK is as follows:-
What was your overall impression on how homelessness is tackled here in Finland? What do you think about it?
There have been several reports in the British media recently about how Finland is tackling homelessness and so it was really useful for me to visit for myself and get a better feel for the ethos behind the project rather than just reading about the principles.
I strongly believe that the greatest work is done by those people with the greatest passion and vision and meeting both Juha and some of the people who are managing the projects has made me realise that this is why the Finnish Housing First model has proved to be successful. I was totally overwhelmed by not only the hospitality shown to us but also by the honest and emotional accounts given to us by those individuals who have been affected by homelessness.
What surprised you the most and is different, also what is similar here compared to Britain?
Spending three days talking with so many residents and service providers has made me realise that so many different elements are radically different to the way that services are run here in the UK.
Our answer to homelessness has historically been to put people in short term emergency accommodation or hostels in order to make them ready for housing. In the UK we expect long term rough sleepers to be able to sort out their drug or alcohol dependencies whilst they are living in temporary, and often very unsuitable, accommodation.
The Finnish model is the total opposite to this in that you are placing people straight into somewhere that they can call ‘home’ at the same time as introducing a support package in order that they can sustain that tenancy.
Of course you have similar economic problems in Finland to us here in the UK – the funding for all of our services is being cut each year right across the board for mental health services, specialist drug and alcohol services etc but you appear to be coping better than us in the actual delivery of a homelessness service!
It was also interesting to speak to some of the individual project providers about the similar difficulties in securing funding each year for creative activities that are so important when looking at the holistic overall well-being of individuals who have experienced homelessness.
Did you get any useful ideas you can take back home to your own work in Doorway?
The most important message that I have brought back with me is Juha’s quietly confident optimism in that anything can happen so long as you believe.
I honestly think that the time is right in the UK for us to realise that we don’t currently have the answer to the increasing homelessness problem and that maybe, just maybe, we can start looking to the way Finland is operating and introduce a new way of tackling the issue.
However, it is vitally important that everyone works together from the very top( ie government) right down to the frontline service providers. That is going to take a lot of hard work and I truly hope that Doorway can play some small part in making this happen over the next few years.
My new mantra will be Juha’s belief that nobody has yet failed in the future. I think this sums up the Finnish mentality of pure optimism and belief in people’s ability to turn their lives around if they are just given the opportunity to succeed.
For a better understanding of how the Finnish Housing First model is working the best place to start is Juha’s TEDx talk recorded at an event in 2014