Four years ago, Thomas Salmi was drinking to forget. He was homeless and living on the streets of Finland’s capital city Helsinki.
He had a rough start in life. He wasn’t able to live at home because his father had problems with aggression. He ended up going to nine different children’s homes, before falling through the cracks of the system in his late teens. By 21 he was homeless. “I lost the sense of a normal life. I became depressed, aggressive, angry and I abused alcohol a lot.” He would drink up to half a gallon a day and then get into trouble. “I thought why would I care if I go to jail? I don’t have to be out there in snow and cold.”
Salmi was sleeping in Helsinki train station when a social worker found him and told him he could help. He was put in touch with Helsinki Deaconess Institute (HDI), a Finnish nonprofit that provides social services. A year later he moved into Aurora-Tola, a 125-unit house run by HDI.
Now 25 years old, he lives in his own studio apartment, works as a janitor and life is getting back on track. “I know that if I am in my house nobody is coming to get me out or telling me what to do,” he said, ”If I want to dance in my home, I can.”
Salmi is a beneficiary of Finland’s much-lauded “housing first” approach, which has been in place for more than a decade.
The idea is simple. To solve homelessness you start by giving someone a home, a permanent one with no strings attached. If they want to drink, they can; if they want to take drugs, that’s fine too. Support services are made available to treat addiction, mental health and other problems, and to help people get back on their feet, from assisting with welfare paperwork to securing a job.
The housing in Finland is a mix of designated standard apartments sprinkled through the community, and supported housing: apartment blocks with on-site services, built or renovated specifically for chronically homeless people. A Salvation Army building in Helsinki, for example, was converted from a 250-bed emergency shelter to an 81 apartment supported housing unit.
Formerly homeless residents have a rental contract just like anyone else. They pay rent from their own pockets or through the benefits afforded by Finland’s relatively generous welfare state.
The approach is working. As homelessness rises across Europe, Finland’s numbers are falling. In 1987, there were around 18,000 homeless people. In 2017, there were 7,112 homeless people, of which only 415 were living on the streets or in emergency shelters. The vast majority (84 percent) were staying temporarily with friends or relatives. Between 2008 and 2015, the number of people experiencing long-term homelessness dropped by 35 percent.
The reason? Finland approaches homelessness “as a housing problem and a violation of fundamental rights, both solvable, and not as an inevitable social problem resulting from personal issues,” said an analysis from Feantsa, a European network that focuses on homelessness.
Traditionally, homeless people are told to straighten up and quit drinking or doing drugs as a precondition to housing. But critics point to the grinding difficulty of shaking addiction from the streets or from temporary shelter beds.
“If something happens and you aren’t successful, like it always happens, it’s the nature of addiction, then you are back on the street,” said Heli Alkila, service area director at HDI which housed Thomas Salmi.
Finland’s approach ultimately comes down to values, said Juha Kaakinen, an architect of the housing first approach and CEO of the nonprofit Y-Foundation. “The Finnish attitude is that we have to help people who are in the most difficult position, whatever the reason they have become homeless,” he said. “We understand very well that the main reasons behind homelessness are structural reasons.”
In Espoo, a city 2 miles west of the Finnish capital, a housing unit sits overlooking a lake. This is Väinölä, a small development built in 2014, which is home to 35 formerly homeless people in 33 apartments.
Eight nurses work on shifts to ensure someone is available 24 hours a day, and a work activity coach and coordinator organize work for those who can and want to do it. This could be anything from cooking meals to packing reflectors and it earns residents €2 ($2.30) a day.
Teams of residents also collect trash locally. “The neighborhood loves it because they think this area is now cleaner than ever,” said Jarkko Jyräsalo, who runs Väinölä. “Sometimes housing units like this have problems with their neighbors, but we don’t.”
Despite the different, sometimes severe, needs of residents, Väinölä is mostly peaceful. Jyräsalo credits weekly community meetings between residents and staff. “They are people who are used to solving their problems with fists or fighting. But now we have learnt to discuss things.”
Finland’s success at cutting homelessness has attracted a huge amount of international attention, and the Y-Foundation’s Kaakinen is often asked to explain how the country mobilized such strong political will. For him, it boils down to this: “There has to be some individual politician who has the social consciousness.”
In Finland’s case it was Jan Vapaavuori, now Helsinki’s mayor but then the housing minister, who drove the housing first approach. Vapaavuori’s politics – he’s in the center-right National Coalition Party – were important, said Kaakinen. When a radical idea is championed by a conservative politician, “it’s very difficult for others to oppose it,” he said. Since then, politicians of all stripes in Finland have continued to support the approach.
It’s not just central government, either. It has been a huge collaborative effort also including cities, businesses, NGOs and state-owned gambling company Veikkaus, formerly Finland’s Slot Machine Association, whose profits go to social causes.
While it’s expensive to build, buy and rent housing for homeless people, as well as provide the vital support services, the architects of the policy say it pays for itself. Studies have found housing one long-term homeless person saves society around €15,000 ($17,000) a year, said Kaakinen, due to a reduction in their use of services such as hospital emergency rooms, police and the criminal justice system.
The housing first approach has its critics. There are those who balk at the idea of people getting free housing when they are seen as having made bad choices. There are accusations that allowing people to continue using alcohol and drugs normalizes the behavior. “But no we don’t,” said Alkila of HDI. “Drugs are here, all these things are here, and we are just trying. It’s a human dignity question, you have to have a place to stay.”
There are also criticisms from some of the formerly homeless people who benefit from the policy. Jyri-Pekka Pursiainen is one of them. A divorce and sudden unemployment knocked him off balance, and he found himself on the streets. For the last two years, he has lived in a studio apartment in a supported housing block in Helsinki, carved out of a former retirement home.
But he is unhappy. “The place I am living now, you can’t call it home ... The whole building is moldy, it’s in really bad shape. People get sick there,” he said. He was told the apartment would be short term. But nearly two years down the line, he is still there with no clue when he might move on. He wants somewhere safe where his three children can visit him.
Still, Pursiainen admits his situation is better now than when he was homeless. He has his own place, and he lives in the center of Helsinki paying a monthly rent of €331 ($379), less than a third of what a standard studio apartment would ordinarily cost there.
None of the housing first advocates suggest that the approach is problem-free, but it’s a base from which people can start to rebuild. “Maybe it’s not perfect, maybe it’s not the dream you had when you were young but this is your own place,” said Alkila.
Finland is not alone in following a housing first approach. It’s already being used in countries such as Denmark, Canada, Australia and also the U.S.
Breaking Ground, a homelessness NGO that operates 4,000 housing units across New York and Connecticut, was one of the pioneers of a housing first approach, said CEO Brenda Rosen.
They hear from critics all the time, she said, who argue people should need to address their issues before they get housing. “We fundamentally feel that that is backwards … rather than expending all your energy and trying to get through each and every day and figure out how you will eat your meals and survive another night through a cold winter, the most decent, humane and cost-effective way is to bring folks inside.”
Housing first is effective in America, said Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, but the scale of the U.S. problem is just so much bigger and the political context is different. “The strategy works,” said Roman. “That’s not the issue. The issue is how much of it are you going to do, and all credit to Finland for having the social safety net and for having the commitment to say they’re going to go to scale or for going to scale. We haven’t done that.”
Finland still has challenges. The demographics of the homeless population are shifting as new groups of people find themselves slipping through the cracks. Alkila points to women as a growing group, now making up around 23 percent of homeless people. Domestic violence and increased use of substances are among the reasons for women becoming homeless, according to a Y Foundation report. Some young people, too, are finding it hard to get a footing when affordable housing is so scarce.
“We didn’t solve homelessness, we solved some part of it,” said Sanna Tiivola of the nonprofit No Fixed Abode (VVA). But, she added, when she goes to other countries and sees they are still leaning heavily on emergency shelters as a solution, “I always think, ahhh you’re still here. Why? Why are doing this shelter thing, no, no, no don’t do it! So that’s a visible change ... and that’s why I think people say that Finland solved homelessness.”
For Salmi, Finland’s housing first approach has changed his life. He has ambitions, he wants to retrain as a pipefitter. He still drinks but only on the weekends. He still struggles with mental health problems, but far less severely and far less often than he used to, and he said he no longer has suicidal thoughts.
“My apartment is kind of a sanctuary … Before I lost my home I didn’t understand how much it meant, and when I lost it, within those three years, I kind of understand the little things in life make you happy,” he said. “I mean if I have dinner, little things, like if I have bread in my fridge later. Normal things.”
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CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the location of Espoo as east of Helsinki.