London wants to eradicate homelessness. Here's how Finland is doing it

A successful Finnish plan to eradicate homelessness is one London may want to consider as it works to redesign housing and health services.

The country's government says it saves approximately $21K on each person housed

One of the apartment complexes built as part of Finland's national homelessness strategy. (Submitted by Y-Foundation)

A successful Finnish plan to eradicate homelessness is one London may want to consider as it works to redesign housing and health services. 

This past week, participants from more than 60 community groups in London wrapped up the last of three housing summits that will lead to a new plan to help the city's nearly 1,900 unhoused. That count was done in the fall and has nearly doubled in two years. 

Londoners will learn more about what was discussed when the plan is made public in late February. Meanwhile, Finland committed to eradicating homelessness several years ago, and the statistics in that country show it's working.

London Morning host Rebecca Zandbergen spoke to the Y-Foundation's Juha Kaakinen, the biggest Finnish NGO providing housing for homeless people, about the country's plan. Here's part of that conversation: 

Juha Kaakinen is the architect of Finland's national Housing First program. (Kirsi Tuura)

What is Finland's plan to eradicate homelessness? 

Since several years, homelessness has decreased in Finland, and the current government has a plan to end homelessness completely by 2027. It means that we are producing a certain amount of affordable social housing and also providing support services for homeless people with our own housing-first model. 

What is that model, because we certainly talk a lot about housing first here in London? 

There are a couple of things that are important to the context. Starting in 2008, we committed to systemic change in the homelessness policy and homelessness service structures. We replaced existing shelters and hostels with permanent housing solutions. It's your own rental apartment, with your own rental contract, and there is support staff there. 

The main thing is that there has to be this housing available.

The homeless population has halved during this new program- Juha Kaakinen

Are there any shelters left in Finland?

We have service centres which are similar to shelters, but the number of those places is minimal. The plan is to have even fewer. You can't see tents in the cities in Finland, as there are no homeless people living in those kinds of conditions. 

Where did the money come to do this? 

The money has come from the state. For example, a lot of the investment in building new housing was based on low interest loans, as opposed to grants.

The thing that we have understood, which is proven in international research, is that providing housing for homeless persons is always more cost-effective for society than keeping people homeless, and that's not even the human cost of homelessness. 

Are you realizing those savings already? Is there any way to quantify that in Finland so far?

We did a study several years ago that showed when a former homeless person gets housing, even with support, even with prep around support, the cost savings for the society are at least €15,000 per person per year. And in the long run, these cost savings can become bigger, especially if we manage to rehabilitate people so that they can go back to working life.


Finland wants to eradicate homelessness by 2027. How close are you? 

Currently, I think that we have around 3,000 homeless persons in Finland, and two-thirds of them are people living in temporary housing with friends and relatives.

Wow! What's the population in Finland?

It's 5.5 million, so it's not a big country, but I would say that in the last 10 years, the homeless population has halved during this new program, and there has been public and government support. 

What advice would you have for people here in London? 

The most important thing is that there's a long-term plan on how to provide the needed affordable social housing. Without that, homelessness is a mission impossible. Shelters should be for very short stays, and there should always be a route forward out of shelters. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

LISTEN to the entire interview:

Juha Kaakinen is an expert on Finland's housing first policy and was the chief executive of the biggest Finnish NGO providing housing for homeless people. Kaakinen joined London Morning to explain his country's effective strategies that worked well for providing housing for homeless people.