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Housing First: Finland's Success Story

We talk to Juha Kaakinen, architect of Finland’s world-leading Housing First program… 

You’ve devoted your career to tackling homelessness. What sparked your passion for this work? 

Sometimes these things happen by accident! I studied literature at university. But then we had a family, and I needed a job. So I did a program where people with degrees from the wrong field could become a social worker in six months. 

My first job was working for the City of Helsinki, taking care of homeless people. My passion arose from some basic ethical questions: Why do we treat people this way? Why can’t we solve homelessness? We were only managing it, not solving it. I felt that a more profound change was possible.  

For twenty years I ran a consultancy specialising in public services – social welfare, health, employment. That showed me how important housing is. Good housing policy is the best prevention for societal problems. 

In 2007, a small group of people – a doctor, a bishop, a CEO, a senior public servant, and yourself – hatched an ambitious plan to end homelessness in Finland. What was the central idea? 

Yes, there were five of us – four “wise ones”, and I was the secretary who wrote the report. We all understood: our present system is not working. We have to turn it around. [We argued] that if we concentrate on solutions for people who are long-term homeless – people with serious health and social issues – that will allow us to solve the “easier” homelessness. And the basic problem? It’s simply about having a home. 

We called this approach “Housing First”. The main idea is that people get their own permanent home, unconditionally, along with flexible on-site support. 


Long-term homelessness has fallen almost 70 per cent since then, and virtually nobody in Finland sleeps rough. How did you achieve this? 

We were very pragmatic. We said: “In the next four years, how can we reach concrete results?” We counted how many homes we needed to build, and what type of homes – “scattered” public housing for people who want to live alone, and supported units for people who fear loneliness, or need intensive support.  

Housing First was a catalyst to create systemic change. Before, Finland had lot of hostels and shelters. But this temporary accommodation just creates and [sustains] the culture of homelessness. So we had to get rid of it. We renovated where possible. Organisations running the shelters got state grants to convert the buildings from [crisis] beds to apartments, money for programs and staff. But on one condition: that they would follow our Housing First principles. 

Housing First has caught the world’s attention. Australia has run successful trials. America has its own model. What’s unique about Finland’s approach? 

The Finnish model has some important differences. In the US, they retained the temporary housing. Several European countries are now implementing the US model – and they are not seeing homelessness go down. To end homelessness permanently, you must reduce the temporary accommodation. Finland also has a housing assistance payment that can cover up to 85 percent of the person’s rent. 

The tenants you’ve met, people who were homeless – what has it meant to them, gaining a secure home?  

The main feedback I hear is: “Now I feel like I have human value.” People feel that now they belong to this society, they’re not outsiders anymore. Many have also reconnected to their families. In Finland, long-term homelessness is mostly divorced men. If a father wants to see his children, living in a shelter is not good. Now their children can visit them at home. 

More Australians than ever lack a place to call home. What are some barriers to ending homelessness? And how can we overcome them? 

The first challenge is deciding that you really want to end homelessness – and realising that it’s possible. Homelessness is a totally solvable policy issue. But you do need the will to solve it. You also need a culture of collaboration. 

Visiting Melbourne in 2018, what struck me was the lack of public housing. This kind of housing is normal in Finland, and it’s a major element in solving homelessness. Building new public housing is not wasted money. In the beginning it looks [expensive], but it’s an investment that helps a lot of people, both directly and indirectly. And tackling homelessness is good for the economy – in Finland the savings are even bigger than we thought. 

I think there are also some mental barriers to overcome. We can ask: Why has a country like Australia, with its huge resources, not solved this simple question of providing stable, safe homes for people? Try to imagine Melbourne without homelessness. Have a visual image of your city where nobody is homeless. 

How important is public support?

Housing is a basic human right. But legislating that is not enough. You need to bring everybody along. When we first converted temporary shelters into permanent housing, that created a strong effect on public opinion. People could see that it works. They stopped seeing homeless people gathering in the streets. That psychological effect is important.  

Finland wants to end all homelessness by 2027. Once that happens, what will you do next? 

It will be time for me to retire! Then I will enjoy the smoke sauna, an ancient Finnish tradition. And I will concentrate on reading more interesting books. 

Juha Kaakinen is a Professor at Tampere University. He was the program leader of Finland’s National Program to Reduce Long-term Homelessness from 2008–2012, and is a former CEO of Y-Foundation, the country’s biggest social housing provider.  


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