Inside Housing | How Finland fixed homelessness



14 November 2016

How Finland fixed homelessness

Housing First turned Finland from a country with a severe homelessness problem into one with almost no rough sleepers. Gavriel Hollander finds out how

For use in Inside Housing, 18 November 2016

CATHY AT 50 200px

Matias Toivonen has little doubt what would have happened to him if he had not been given help to live in his own home two-and-a-half years ago. “I thought I’d be dead by now.”

The 64-year-old Helsinki resident’s life has undergone the kind of changes made possible by Finland’s revolutionary approach to what was once a major homelessness problem.

Targeting the vulnerable

Housing First, a system first adopted in pockets of the United States in the 1980s (see box: Housing First), is based on a belief that vulnerable homeless people should initially be given a place to live and only then provided with the support services that are more commonly thought of as the first step to rehabilitation.

Mr Toivonen’s story is not an altogether unusual one. Having left his parents’ home in rural Vihti, around 30 miles to the north-west of Helsinki, (“I don’t like the countryside,” he tells me) to return to the capital in the 1990s, he spent his time between hostels, temporary accommodation and in an all-night café run by the No Fixed Abode charity. He had health problems, drank heavily and was occasionally aggressive.

Eventually, he went lame and his leg was close to being amputated.

For use in Inside Housing, 18 November 2016
Matias Toivonen

Between 2007 and 2013 he lived in a supported housing unit with around 50 other people before the Y-Foundation, a provider of rental accommodation that specialises in housing the homeless, helped him find his own flat. Joona Pöhö, a housing advisor with the Y-Foundation, explains that the organisation chose to take a chance on Mr Toivonen when it offered him a flat. “We knew he needed lots of support but we decided it was worth trying because he himself wanted to go,” he says.

This type of decision is at the heart of Housing First: the decision to target the most vulnerable and potentially most needy homeless people, and to set them up with a home at the start of the process of assimilating them back into society. It certainly appears to have had a dramatic impact, with rough sleeping all but eradicated from a high of 4,700 in the 1980s. This is partly why our Cathy at 50 campaign is calling for the UK to look at adopting Housing First here

I’m in Finland to discover how and why the policy works, what difference it has made and how it could be replicated in the UK.

The story of Housing First in Finland dates back to the 1980s, when the Y-Foundation was founded. It was then that the country’s government decided to tackle a homelessness problem that had been growing exponentially throughout the post-War years. In 1987, there were 18,000 homeless people in Finland, out of a population still below five million.

That number was reduced to around 12,000 by the early 1990s but those being helped were not the most needy: the long-term homeless.

“Policy used to be much more short-sighted,” recalls Juha Kaakinen, chief executive of Y-Foundation.

“Before, when we were talking about homelessness it wasn’t about building more affordable social housing or targeted measures for homeless people; it was very much the thinking that these people needed support first and then they could [get everything else].”

In 2008, the government launched the national programme for the reduction of long-term homelessness, known as Paavo. The initiative was led by the so-called ‘Four Wise Men’ (see box: The Paavo scheme), with Mr Kaakinen acting as programme co-ordinator.

For use in Inside Housing, 18 November 2016
Juha Kaakinen

Paavo’s aims and methods were radical. The programme specifically targeted the long-term homelessness problem, with an aim to halve numbers by 2011 and end it entirely by 2015, doing so by, among other things, converting homeless shelters in Finland’s biggest cities into rental housing. The government also set targets for the number of new flats to be built to aid the programme in each of the 10 cities in which the policy was implemented.

While the most difficult cases, such as people with severe mental health problems, tend to be placed in supported housing units, albeit ones where they are rent-paying tenants, the principle is aimed at housing those who are able to get by with less support in ‘scattered’ housing, pepper-potted around communities.

Inevitably that can cause friction for existing residents, but there seems to be a willingness here to put society before the individual.

“Most Finns obey the law,” one young Y-Foundation employee tells me when I comment how – in contrast to London – everyone in Helsinki seems to wait for a green light to cross the road. Kimmo Tiilikainen, the minister for environment and housing, accepts that there are “practical problems” with the Housing First approach, but thinks the battle for hearts and minds has been more or less won.

“If neighbours can see that these people can manage their lives and make improvements, and they can see it really helps, then it’s acceptable to people,” he says. “We have a political consensus that homelessness is not right.”

That consensus was hard won, however. Jan Vapaavuori, Mr Tiilikainen’s predecessor, who implemented Paavo in the first place, admits to using some “political pressure” on at least two of the municipalities involved. But for the former minister, other factors were more important when it came to being allowed to develop innovative solutions to a long-standing problem.

“There is a strong consensus [behind the programme],” he argues. “The political argument is a combination. It’s not only good social policy; it has a big safety and security angle, as the more homeless people there are on the streets, the more unsafe the city is. And there’s an economic argument, too: taking care of these people is a good investment.”

Local attitude

Mr Kaakinen estimates that each homeless person that is taken off the streets saves social and other services around €15,000 (£13,000) a year. Yet none of this could be done without funding and investment.

“All the flats we build for this programme are subsidised,” says Mr Vapaavuori, candidly adding: “I don’t think we could do it in a more market-driven system.”

So where does the money come from? A crucial part of the financial jigsaw is funding from Finland’s Slot Machine Association, which has supplied €50m to help purchase scattered housing developments. Furthermore, all affordable social housing in Finland is backed partly by government grant and partly by loans, capped at 1.7%, issued by the state-owned but independent Housing Finance and Development Fund. The fund is responsible for €6.5bn of loans.

“Without this [funding] system, we would not have succeeded in the homelessness programme,” states Peter Fredriksson, a senior advisor at the Ministry of the Environment and one of the key architects behind Paavo. “The revolution of the services wouldn’t have been possible without this money. It channels state money to municipalities; they did not need to put their own money in at all.”

In a way, this is the crux of why a Housing First-based system was both given the go ahead in the first place and has since proved a success. It is operating within a wider housing system that is designed to maintain mixed communities, and in which subsidies are still seen as playing a crucial role. In Helsinki, the situation is helped by the fact that the city owns more than 70% of the land. Jätkäsaari is a major development on a wind-swept peninsula of reclaimed land jutting out into the Baltic Sea from the south-west of the city. There, around 9,000 homes are being built in numerous phases, the last due to complete in 2025.

Although there are unlikely to be any ‘scattered’ housing units for the homeless here, the tenure mix speaks loudly to the local attitude to development. There is a roughly even split of market sale, private rent and social homes.

“Wherever we build we are trying to make a good social mix,” says Matti Kaijansinkko from the City Planning Department. “As long as the city is the landowner, that is working quite well.”

For use in Inside Housing, 18 November 2016
Matti Kaijansinkko from the Helsinki City Planning Department shows Inside Housing the 9,000-home new development on Jätkäsaari

Although funding for development comes from central government, aided by the Slot Machine windfall, councils are called on to fund some of the services that are necessary to make Housing First work for the more vulnerable long-term homeless.

On the site of Finland’s first psychiatric hospital, in Lapinlahti in the west of Helsinki, the Alvi Association operates a supported housing unit for 23 residents with severe mental health problems. A team of 11 work around the clock on the site, costing the city €140 per resident per day. Yet here too, the Housing First principle of autonomy and self-reliance rules.

Residents plan their activities, including a shopping and cooking rota. They all pay rent for their apartments and have normal rental contracts that they must honour.

“These are their homes,” explains Juha Järvinen, director of the association. “We are working in their homes, they are not living in our workplace. When you leave space for [them] to decide what kind of life they want and how to get it, they are taking control. Our role is just to make them understand the possibilities.”

Housing First has brought Finland’s homeless population down to less than 7,000. The majority of those still homeless – around 80% according to Mr Kaakinen – are staying with friends or relatives.

“It’s a stunning result,” says Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at Crisis. “They used to have a bigger homelessness problem than we have.” Could the UK follow their lead? Mr Downie is sceptical. “We’ve got a system that is the exact opposite of Housing First. In Finland they made a strategic choice [to do this]; that allowed them to change everything.”

The stark numbers are impressive, but it’s in the individual stories that the success of Finland’s model can be seen. Matias Toivonen never dreamt he would have his own apartment, let alone be planning trips abroad, as he is now. His years on the street have left their mark, in hooded eyes and missing teeth. But he laughs as he speaks. “I did not imagine my life would be this good,” he says.

Housing First

Housing First was developed as a new way to approach homelessness in Los Angeles in the late 1980s. Schemes have followed in cities including New York, Chicago, Denver and San Francisco. In 2010 it was adopted as ‘best practice’ by the US Interagency Council on Homelessness. Although the approaches across the different schemes vary, they retain some key features, including the concept of offering permanent housing as quickly as possible to anyone finding themselves homeless. The schemes are based on the principle that housing is a basic human right.

Housing First has also been adopted in parts of Australia, Canada, France and Japan. Although there have been small-scale trials in the UK, it has yet to gain traction. A 2008 report from Shelter cited a lack of supply as a key reason for this.

The Paavo scheme

The Paavo scheme in Finland was developed by the so-called ‘Four Wise Men’: Paavo Voutilainen, director of social welfare for the city of Helsinki; Hannu Puttonen, the former chief executive of the Y-Foundation; Dr Ilkka Taipale, one of the Y-Foundation founders and a former politician; and Eero Huovinen, bishop of Helsinki.

The Y-Foundation’s current chief executive, Juha Kaakinen, was the programme coordinator.

Inside Housing | Helping the homeless



14 November 2016

Helping the homeless


A few hours after deciding to write about homelessness in this blog, my friend, Trevor Smith, said this to me: “Homelessness is centre stage in the induction programme I am designing. If new entrants to the housing sector don’t ‘get’ homelessness, they won’t understand what we’re about.”

Trevor runs the support programme for the Centre for Partnership’s GEM (Graduate Employment and Mentoring) Programme. His comment started me thinking about the extent to which homelessness – and finding solutions for it – remains at the heart of what we do or whether, at times, we forget about it in the rush to keep step with the government’s latest housing initiative (I understand that it’s ‘buy as you go’ this week).

I touch base regularly with Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis. Two years ago we were discussing how homelessness was increasing, and that measures such as the overall benefits cap would only make it worse. He said he thought that the pendulum would swing back by 2017. The fantastic work that he and the Crisis team have done to promote the Homelessness Reduction Bill is a strong indicator that he got it right. Two or three years ago the government was so busy weakening the safety net for homeless people it would have been inconceivable that such a measure could have succeeded. Now the bill, which was taken forward by Conservative MP Bob Blackman, has the support of the Communities and Local Government, local authorities and, we hope, parliament. That is an astonishing result.

We also have a housing minister who is bothered about homelessness. He says he is, and I choose to believe him. Recently he stated that “solving our housing crisis is a moral priority”. Homelessness is back on the radar.

There is the fantastic work that David Bogle and the Homes for Cathy group are doing which will be showcased in parliament in February, and which has spawned a myriad of national and regional events. South Yorkshire Housing Association (SYHA) showed the original Cathy Come Home at our local independent cinema last week, and it was followed by a panel debate which included the housing lead on the local council, a homelessness agency and a young woman who had experienced homelessness. Next week we are reprising this as part of a programme for local schools. Then, in a couple of months, the brilliant Cardboard Citizens theatre company (which includes homeless actors) is coming to the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, with an updated version of Cathy. The Homes for Cathy group of associations are also sponsoring Inside Housing’s competition for young filmmakers to produce a ‘Cathy’ for the 21st century.

So what else are associations doing? There are the obvious answers such as increasing housing supply (40% of all new homes last year, for example), working hard to sustain existing tenancies and working closely with local authorities to support their homeless strategies. The two performance indicators I look for first at SYHA are the number of tenants we have evicted and the proportion of new tenants who have been homeless or at risk.

There is another dimension to this – the way in which we work with our tenants as individuals. Every time we intervene to support one of our customers into a training or employment programme, we take them one step further away from homelessness. Every intervention to support someone’s health, well-being and self-esteem does the same. Placeshapers associations do loads of this stuff.  Its We Work programme is a great showcase for the tens of thousands of people who have been supported in this way. Immediate examples at SYHA include our arts programme, Moments of Joy, and our Ageing Better project which tackles loneliness and isolation.

I have tried – and failed – to track the origin of the much-quoted statement that any one of us is only two bad decisions away from homelessness. If we are better connected, better informed and better supported, we will be less likely to make these mistakes.

At the end of every meeting our board assesses the decisions we have just taken against our risk framework. We think about how each decision has affected our risk profile, risk appetite etc. A lot of associations do this. Perhaps we should also be thinking about the impact of our decisions on homelessness in the same way. To what extent are the decisions we take on, for example, new developments, tenure, or sales strategies likely to improve or damage prospects for homelessness locally? Like those GEM graduates, we need to ensure we still ‘get’ it.

Tony Stacey, chief executive, South Yorkshire Housing Association

Inside Housing launches homelessness campaign


14 November 2016 

Inside Housing launches homelessness campaign


Inside Housing has launched a campaign to tackle rough sleeping to mark this week’s 50th anniversary of the landmark film Cathy Come Home.

The Cathy at 50 campaign will raise awareness and promote innovative practice to help end rough sleeping. We will also be launching a competition – Reel Homes – to produce a film about homelessness or the housing crisis and deliver a Cathy Come Home for the 21st century.

As part of the campaign, Inside Housing will be running in-depth investigations and analysis every day this week, examining the current homelessness landscape and providing ideas for the government and the housing sector about how to reduce the currently soaring levels of rough sleeping.

Cathy at 50 will call for some practical action too. It asks councils, housing providers and the government to look at adopting a Housing First approach to tackle rough sleeping.

The model, which involves providing permanent housing backed up by tailored support, appears to have been successful in tackling rough sleeping in other countries and the campaign argues it should be rolled out more widely in the UK. To kick things off, today our research looks at the impact Housing First has had in Finland and Canada.

The campaign is also calling on the Government to commit to ending rough sleeping, and halve it by 2020 as a staging post.

Cathy at 50 campaign aims:

  • To launch a film competition to produce a finished work about homelessness or the impact of the housing crisis.
  • A week of detailed research and stories from the frontline to mark the 50th anniversary of Cathy Come Home and promote a wider debate about the current homelessness crisis.
  • Calls for councils to explore Housing First as a default option for long-term rough sleepers and commission Housing First schemes. Calls for housing associations to identify additional stock for Housing First schemes and for government to support five Housing First projects, collect evidence and distribute best practice.
  • Calls for the government to commit to ending rough sleeping, and to halve rough sleeping by 2020 as the first step to achieving this.

Senior sector figures have already lent their support to the campaign.

Terrie Alafat, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), said: “The 50th anniversary of Cathy Come Home is a chance to reflect on an issue which has worsened steadily since 2010.”

Ms Alafat added that the current Homelessness Reduction Bill represents a historic opportunity to tackle the issue, but as well as the new law the Government “needs to commit to a strategy on homelessness which tackles the root causes and gives more support to local authorities”.

She added that the CIH supports Housing First “as part of a wider effort to tackle homelessness”.

Jeremy Swain, chief executive of homelessness charity Thames Reach, said that it has “long advocated the mainstreaming of the Housing First model in the UK to assist long-term rough sleepers with multiple needs and we are pleased to be able to give our strong backing to the Inside Housing campaign that seeks to achieve this.”

He added: “There are many approaches to helping homeless people which sound fine but cannot demonstrate that they successfully help people to escape homelessness. In contrast, the Housing First model has been scrutinised and evaluated very carefully and has a proven track record in helping people come off the street, stay housed and get their lives back. In short: Housing First works and we need more of it.”

Inside Housing | Pay to Stay meetings cancelled as policies face delays



11 November 2016

Pay to Stay meetings cancelled as policies face delays


Meetings of the Government’s Pay to Stay working group have been cancelled as several key measures in the Housing and Planning Act look set to be delayed.

Inside Housing can exclusively reveal that the Government has cancelled scheduled meetings despite the policy- under which higher earning tenants pay up to market rent- originally being planned for implementation in April next year.

It is not clear why the meetings have been cancelled, but sector figures this week said it suggested a delay. Councils have been urging ministers to put the start date back to give them time to prepare.

The news emerged days after a senior civil servant admitted the Right to Buy (RTB) extension to housing association tenants is set to be delayed as a result of the Brexit vote.

Housing minister Gavin Barwell also said this week that councils “need plenty of time” before implementing the higher value asset levy intended to fund the RTB extension, in response to a question about whether councils would still have to pay the levy in 2017/18 as expected. The government said regulations to implement Pay to Stay and the levy, along with RTB guidance, will be published in ‘due course’.

The Pay to Stay policy requires council tenants to pay up to market rent if they earn over £31,000, or £40,000 in London.

The Government has already taken several steps that water down the effects of the policy. Inside Housing reported last month DCLG was considering exempting council tenants in areas where social rents and market rents are similar and councils will be able to decide how to define market rent locally.

The Higher Value Asset Levy councils would be forced to pay also faces delay. Housing bodies had expected the Levy to be introduced from April next year. However, housing minister Gavin Barwell told the Communities and Local Government committee this week that no implementation date had been decided. He added he is “very aware” the legislation was “quite controversial” and the government will need to give councils “plenty of time” to implement the policy.

The Levy regulations were due to be published before the parliamentary summer recess in July but still have not materialised four months later. Experts said it would now be difficult for the policy to be introduced from next April. Clive Betts, chair of the CLG committee, said most councils are setting their budgets for next year and “haven’t got any idea what figure is going to be placed on them to estimate the high value assets”.

John Bibby, chief executive of the Association of Retained Council Housing, said if the voluntary RTB is delayed- as a civil servant this week said it would be – the higher value asset levy for councils should also be put back. He said ARCH would lobby “very strongly” for the levy to be delayed. He added: “If [the voluntary RTB] is not going to go ahead then there’s no reason to levy the councils.”

John Healey, shadow housing secretary said: “Ministers should recognise that on the Housing and Planning Act they may have won the legislation but they lost the argument. No-one thinks that forcing councils to sell off the best of their homes is an answer to the country’s affordable housing deficit. It can only make the problem worse.”

A DCLG spokesperson said nothing had changed with the higher value asset levy policy. He added: “We are currently considering how best to implement the policy to ensure it is robust and fair to councils. We will make an announcement in due course.”

Inside Housing | Housing minister casts doubt over Higher Value Asset Levy date


08 November 2016

Housing minister casts doubt over higher value levy date

The levy is meant to fund the building of homes to replace those sold through the extension of Right to Buy to housing association tenants. The Government was widely expected to implement the policy from April next year but detailed regulations required to implement the measure have not been published. A Department for Communities and Local Government civil servant also admitted last week that the Right to Buy extension has been delayed by the Brexit referendum vote.

Speaking at a Communities and Local Government committee session this afternoon, Mr Barwell said the government has not made any decisions about when councils will be expected to make the payment but details of the “controversial policy” would require “quite a notice period” before being introduced.

He said: “We haven’t taken a decision on timing yet but we have a statutory duty to consult councils before making any determination setting out the payment that would be required and the regulations require affirmative procedure in the House so there’s clearly quite a big process that we have to go through before we could start making charges.”

Mr Betts pressed the housing minister whether councils will be expected to find any of the high value asset levy in their budgets for 2017/18.

Mr Barwell said: “In terms of the process we have to go through, consulting and taking affirmative regulations through the House, you can see there would be quite a notice period before we could start making those charges.”

Clive Betts, chair of the CLG committee, said most councils are setting their budgets for next year and “haven’t got any idea what figure is going to be placed on them to estimate the high value assets”.

Sajid Javid, communities secretary, said the government is “clearly very much aware that councils will need to know what the burdens are on them and that is something we don’t want to surprise any councils with”.

He added: “We want to give them fair notice what that will be. And as we progress and have more details we will share them.”

Mr Betts asked if the payment would be required at the beginning of a financial year. Mr Barwell said the Government wanted to make sure it is a “smooth process”.

He added he is “very aware” the legislation that went through the House was “quite controversial” and it will require time to allow people to comment on the detail of the regulations when they are published and give councils “plenty of time” to implement the policy.

The Housing and Planning Act, which received Royal Assent in May, gives the secretary of state the power to levy a charge on councils, based on estimates of higher value vacant stock.