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Fix it like Finland: 'Nowadays there isn’t a single rough sleeper on Helsinki streets'

The government could replicate the necessary conditions for a Finnish style turnaround, writes Jack Maguire.

Jack Maguire Writer

ON SATURDAY APRIL 7 an estimated 10,000 people took to the streets of Dublin to protest against a worsening housing crisis.

Those who attended had been stirred into action by recent harrowing statistics. During February 2018 alone, 488 children had become homeless. The overall number of people without a home has risen to an astounding total of 10,000.

These figures don’t account for the thousands living in emergency accommodation. Nor do they include the 300,000 currently awaiting social housing. As People Before Profit Councillor Tina McVeigh said to crowds gathered at Custom House Quay at the weekend, this disaster has come about from “policies that have prioritised the wealth of the few over the homes of the many”.

Finland’s crisis

Back in the 80s, Finland was facing a housing crisis of its own. There were up to 18,000 people sleeping on the street every night, and an urgent need for a drastic solution. In 1987, the Finnish government drafted a new action plan called Housing First.

Under this scheme, NGOs across the country teamed up with city councils to work on the issue. Housing was to be regarded as a fundamental human right, just as Dublin crowds chanted for on Saturday. In order to meet quotas, each Finnish city was to use “all possible channels”. Hostels, shelters and social housing across the country were converted into supported housing units, and new properties were built.

Once a Finnish person became homeless, they were given one of these flats immediately, a foundation upon which to rebuild their lives. Most places would offer on-site assistance too, to help those recovering from addiction and mental health issues.

A runaway success

These measures were funded by the government. Money was diverted that had previously been reserved for municipalities, cities and NGOs working in the area. Procedures were introduced with little opposition, as those initially wary changed their minds after favourable international media coverage.

Homelessness in Finland has decreased every year since 1987, truly a runaway success. The scheme now owns about 6,000 properties across the country. Although 6,650 Finnish people remained homeless in 2016, 80% lived with friends or family, and 10% were in hostels or institutions. Only one homeless shelter remains, as the rest are no longer necessary.

Housing First completely resolved the Finnish housing crisis, and nowadays there isn’t a single rough sleeper on Helsinki streets. But how was it implemented in Finland with such success, while the Irish equivalent failed to take off? Particularly since both countries and capitals have similar populations.

Politicians’ attitudes

The answer lies in our politicians’ attitudes toward homelessness. Radical change is not possible unless there is strong political will and active participation from the State. Our lack of conviction is exemplified by the neglect that The Irish Housing First scheme has faced. The programme’s 150 properties were supposed to be doubled last year, a promise that was never met.

On the other hand, Finland’s success lay in their ability to adopt social housing, something we have a dire shortage of here. For housing to become a human right, the government must replicate the necessary conditions for a Finnish style turnaround. Social housing targets need to start being met (and exceeded) with urgency.

There is a solution, but only if only those in power choose to see it. As Ballymun rapper ‘Nugget’ sang while performing to protestors on Saturday, “One in five TDs are landlords, remember this. Why would they bring in legislation when they benefit?”

Jack Maguire is a recent English Studies graduate, who has since written for the Jobbio blog and Hot Press.

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Jack Maguire  / Writer

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