Homelessness Across the World: Finland

In the US, 600,000 people are experiencing homelessness, with 80,000 just in New York City. Every day, those with a full-time minimum wage job can barely pay rent. On the other hand, Finland has a total homeless population of 5,000, with zero in its capital of Helsinki. So, how did Finland get there?

In 2007, tenants lined the streets of Helsinki, Finland. The government realized that temporary housing solutions such as short-term and emergency shelters were not solutions to their homelessness problem. Instead, Helsinki decided to try the “Housing First” method to solve chronic homelessness, ironically based upon an NYC model by Dr. Sam Tsemberis. Dr. Tsemberis developed what was then known as the “Pathways to Housing Model.” Pathways’ approach is providing permanent “housing first, and then combin[ing] that housing with supportive services and treatment services.” This approach works because it provides the homeless community with “dignity and hope.”  Dr. Tsemberis ran a randomized controlled trial of his program comparing a Pathways to Housing model to standard treatment over a 36-month period. The standard model, or continuum of care models, places individuals experiencing homelessness into a shelter, decides if they can go into temporary housing, gives an income check, and finally, if they pass everything, puts them into permanent housing. Each participant had spent the last two weeks sleeping on the streets, had a mental illness, and six months with unstable housing.  Over four years, the study’s findings showed that people in Pathways would spend more time in stable housing, less time in hospitals, and the results would last longer.  

When Finland saw these results and took on the “Housing First” method, they too saw an immediate improvement in the lives of people experiencing homelessness.  From 2010-2018, 40% of homelessness decreased and continues to go down. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, Finland saw no surge in homelessness while the rest of the world felt the crisis more than ever. In addition, the program cost less as Finland saw policing and hospitalization go down as people’s needs are being taken care of and are not exposed to a system that punished people for being without a home.   

So why does the US not implement this program?  Funding for programs like these is almost non-existent. Over time, the Housing and Urban Developments budget has decreased. Housing First relies on a system that prioritizes humans over the economy. Housing in the US is treated as a commodity and not a right. There is a focus on luxury housing for the rich over basic housing for the poor. Homelessness helps the capitalist economy thrive by ensuring people are working undesirable jobs. Finland’s social democratic system prioritizes workers by allowing unionization. In Finland, the workforce is 75% unionized, and therefore, the Finnish have both higher job security and wages, which helps people who were once homeless stay in a home permanently. 

What differentiates Finland’s successful system from the US is that housing and working is not a game. The everyday citizen is prioritized as a human being and not a chess piece. The moment America can value homeless individuals through programs like Housing First, it will see the same successes as Finland.


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