Nova Scotia

What Halifax can learn from Helsinki about ending homelessness

Communities that want to eradicate homelessness should focus on getting people into permanent housing without preconditions, says the architect of a successful housing strategy in Finland. 

Helsinki on track to eradicate homelessness by 2025

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

Communities that want to eradicate homelessness should focus on getting people into permanent housing without preconditions, says the architect of a successful housing strategy in Finland. 

While many places, including Medicine Hat, Alta., have similar "housing first" programs, Finland was the first country to adopt it on a national scale. The capital city of Helsinki is now on track to end homelessness by 2025.

Juha Kaakinen, the CEO of the housing non-profit Y-Foundation, spoke with CBC Radio's Information Morning Halifax on Wednesday about how the strategy works, and what other cities can learn from it. 

"We understand that permanent housing is the only way to provide sustainable solutions to homelessness, and temporary solutions, they have the tendency to become more or less permanent," Kaakinen said. 

Listen to Juha Kaakinen's interview with Information Morning host Portia Clark:

Finland is well on its way to eradicating homelessness... with the city of Helsinki on track to meet its 2025 goal. We talk to the architect behind Finland's wildly successful "Housing First" strategy to see what's working there, and whether we can learn a thing or two as Halifax prepares to open its emergency modular units.

Finland's strategy is built around the idea that housing is a human right.

Kaakinen said people can't address other issues in their lives without first having a warm and safe place to live. It's why his organization has bought or built some 18,000 affordable units over the past several decades.

In response to a growing housing crisis in Nova Scotia, the provincial government committed last year to providing funding toward the construction of 178 affordable housing units in the Halifax Regional Municipality and the Annapolis Valley. 

There are also groups, such as the Halifax Regional Municipality and the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth, that have created temporary relief for people needing a warm place to stay this winter. 

The municipality's project to house 64 people in modular units at two locations has now risen to a cost of $4.9 million.

Twenty temporary shelters where Nova Scotians experiencing homelessness can spend the winter have now been installed at church grounds across the province. (Well Engineered Inc.)

But Kaakinen said temporary solutions like shelters and hostels are not working. In many cases, he said people don't feel comfortable or safe staying in these places and they end up living rough outside. 

"As soon as the situation seems to be a little bit better, the people start forgetting that we should solve this issue in a more sustainable way," he said. 

Kaakinen said the "housing first" model is about treating people who are experiencing homelessness like anyone else. They are able to apply to live in an affordable rental unit, without preconditions, and offered supports once they've moved in. 

A look inside one of the apartments built as part of Finland's housing first approach. All of the units have a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living space. (Submitted by Y-Foundation)

Kaakinen said of the 18,000 units his organization maintains, 11,000 are typical social housing where low-income people in urgent need can apply to live and where rent is supplemented by social programs. 

"We have also special housing for homeless persons, and then we work in close co-operation with municipalities and NGOs who know the local needs, and they select the tenants and then also provide the support that's needed," he said.

Kaakinen said it's up to municipalities and cities to provide the supports people need to stay in the affordable units.

Having enough affordable housing stock is also key.

"In Finland, we have the policy that in each new housing areas, at least 25 per cent of the apartments are affordable, social housing ... this provides the foundation for solving homelessness in a sustainable way," he said.

The country's housing strategy is making a difference in people's lives, Kaakinen said.

He estimates his country  — which has a population of about 5.5 million — has just over 4,000 people who are homeless, "but two-thirds of them are people living temporarily with friends and relatives."

"Since 2008, total homelessness has halved, and long-term homelessness, which means that people who have been homeless at least for one year and who have serious social and health issues, has decreased by 70 per cent," he said. 

With files from CBC Radio's Information Morning