Oh, to be in Finland now that spring is here

James Fuller reports on the ‘Housing First: Ending homelessness across Finland and the UK’ seminar at the Finnish Ambassador’s residence in London, 6 March 2019. The event was organised in co-operation with the Finnish Institute in London and Crisis UK. (1,070 words)

Kensington Palace Gardens, or Ambassadors Avenue as it might as well be called, is a private, heavily guarded boulevard nestled behind the sedate royal dwelling from which it takes its name that is packed with official residences. Not an obvious venue for a series of presentations, organised by the Finnish Institute, about how to house some of the most marginalised and multiply excluded members of society, even if the Finnish building is typically modest.

After a brief word from the Ambassador and the same from Jon Sparkes, Chief Executive of Crisis, we heard from Anita Birchall, Head of the Threshold Housing Project, a specialist housing first, five-year pilot project working with female homeless ex-offenders. As is generally the case for such pilots, Anita reeled off a succession of impressive outcomes for the fifty or so residents THP is helping, although she was clearly anxious about the renewal of her funding, as the end of term is fast approaching. She also revealed that whilst it had been possible to house people within about four weeks during the early stages of the pilot, at present it takes some 71 days on average. This is frustrating for her team, she said and is causing some distress to users of the service, who imagine an application will lead almost directly to accommodation. The idea that this is a ‘from the prison gate’ operation is way short of the mark.

Anita concluded by expressing concerns, shared widely by the small but knowledgeable audience, as to how this ‘common sense’ approach is to be rolled out across the country, in view of the critical lack of suitable property and other essential resources (trained staff and money) available, not to mention the political will at the top. Given that the Secretary of State was sitting about four feet in front of her, ‘not to mention’, was probably the sensible, diplomatic thing to do.

Juha Kaakinen, CEO of the Y-Foundation, though he is far too modest and charming a person to admit it, is almost certainly one of the fathers of Finland’s successful drive to all-but end rough sleeping in his country. He has been involved in this issue, in various guises, since 1986 and perhaps central to the cause since HF was adopted by central Government in 2007. This gives us some idea of how long it is likely to take in a country such as Britain, with ten times the population and a national housing crisis that reaches deeply into the working population and cannot be fixed in a hurry. The first and most important thing you need to make housing first work, Juha said, with the slightest glint at the Minister, is housing…

In essence the ‘Finnish model’ is founded firmly on three vital foundations, although this country might struggle to emulate them, certainly in the current, fractious environment:

First, there is national consensus, emanating and sustained from the top, that a home (rather than various forms of conditional housing) is a human right.

Second, ending rough sleeping was achievable because the Y-Foundation owns the properties used in its capacity as the Housing First Europe Hub. To this end, dingy old hostel buildings have been converted into single-occupation units and blocks of flats acquired in otherwise privately-owned developments. No separation or segregation, no ‘othering’ here; just a direct correlation between steadily falling street dwelling and rising property acquisition.

This recognition of the absolute need for owned ‘social housing’ is crucial if HF is to work for the hardest-to-home among us. Relying on the private rental sector and scarce housing benefit funding is unworkable for too many, obvious reasons.

Third, every appropriate agency is involved and works in collaboration to achieve the optimal outcome. Juha was working for the city when his interest first started, so he probably knows better than most how important seamless municipal/charitable etc., working is to any housing-based initiative.

There remain about a thousand people who are homeless in Finland according to the latest data (released: 07/03/2019), but one gets the feeling that this figure will continue to fall.

Next, we heard from Wayne Craft, an HF service user. Wayne explained from a personal perspective how his new home has pulled him clear of a thirty-year drug habit and decades rotating between the street and HMP Wandsworth, ‘my only previous home’, as he movingly called it. Even if one looks at HF from a purely economic perspective, the four years Wayne has stayed clear of the criminal justice system has so far saved the Treasury, conservatively, some £160,000 (the cost of his ‘first home’, never mind associated crime, police and court costs), although one would prefer to concentrate on the person and the satisfaction, at last, of his basic needs.

The closing remarks were ‘delivered’, to use the Government’s word of the moment, by The Rt Honourable James Brokenshire MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. The Minister reminded the audience of the ‘substantial investment’ Government is making to end rough sleeping by its target date of 2027 (it’s amazing how one can make £30m sound like a huge amount of money if one puts the emphasis on the right syllables!) and praised HMG’s charity partners, Crisis and St Mungo’s, for their excellent work in this field. Mr Brokenshire ended by praising Finland’s efforts and looked forward to continuing good inter-governmental relations. The clapometer did not move with any great enthusiasm as we retired to an adjoining room for coffee and cake, there having been no opportunity to ask questions from the floor.

Given the opportunity, one would have wanted to ask if the Secretary of State stands by his previously stated assertion; that rough sleeping is caused by drugs and broken homes and if so, to outline what steps the Government is taking to address these issues. Second, now that we have seen that rough sleeping can be eliminated with the right approach, does he believe that the measures taken and proposed for Britain will achieve this aim?

Housing First – https://housingfirsteurope.eu/countries/finland. Please give it a click, but be prepared to cheer…and weep.