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Y-Foundation housing projects in Helsinki, Finland.Y-Foundation

What if homelessness was simply not an option?

That’s the approach that Finland took when it decided to address their homelessness problem, beginning with a comprehensive strategy to provide immediate, permanent housing for those who most needed it.

As a result, Finland has become the leading example of how to drastically reduce homelessness.

Juha Kaakinen is chief executive officer of Finland’s non-profit Y-Foundation, which develops housing and purchases existing housing, and then leases it out to people who’d otherwise be homeless. Mr. Kaakinen, who was at the forefront of Finland’s radical housing transformation, took part in a recent panel discussion on whether Canadian cities were using useless stopgap measures to solve the affordable housing crisis.

The Canadian Urban Institute held the virtual nine-speaker Aug. 4 event. In particular, the panel looked at homeless encampments that had become a feature of the pandemic in the past year, including large tent cities in Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria.

“I have always thought that there were a lot of similarities between Canada and Finland, but this seems to be an issue where we also have great differences, because I really can’t recall that we have had any homeless encampments in this century,” Mr. Kaakinen told the panel.

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Juha Kaakinen is chief executive officer of Y-Foundation, which develops housing and purchases existing housing, and then leases it out to people who’d otherwise be homeless.Kirsi Tuura

That’s not to say Finland, a small country of around 5 million, has not had its problems. In 1987, Finland had a homeless population of about 20,000 and it became clear that temporary shelters weren’t a solution. They overhauled the system. Since then, Finland’s rate has plummeted to 4,300 single homeless people and an estimated 200 couples or families that are homeless. Most are temporarily living with friends or relatives, Mr. Kaakinen explained in an e-mail.

By comparison, Canada’s homelessness rate is conservatively estimated at around 235,000.

In an interview, Mr. Kaakinen expressed his dismay at the visible reality of Canada’s housing crisis, having seen pictures of people struggling on the streets and in parks.

“I’m not surprised to see pictures like these from the U.S.A., but Canada? These pictures remind me most of some pictures of Finland in the 1960s. For me, there is only one [criterion] for a civilized society: it takes care of all its members, including people experiencing homelessness. “There seems to be countries that regard themselves as highly developed, rich, world-leading countries, but utterly fail in securing basic human rights like housing.”

Vancouver’s homelessness crisis became a bleak reality during the pandemic, when an encampment set up in Oppenheimer Park and then Strathcona Park. The City of Vancouver conducted its last annual homeless count just before the pandemic broke, in early March, 2020. The count found that 2,095 residents in Vancouver identified as homeless. Of those, 547 people lived on the street and 1,548 people were living in shelters, including detox centres, safe houses and hospitals, with no fixed address, according to information provided by the city in an e-mail. Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps told the panel that her city saw an increase of people living in the rough go from about 35 at the onset of the pandemic to an estimated 465 people a month later.

Shelters are not an acceptable form of housing, and large encampments have never been a form of shelter in Finland, Mr. Kaakinen told the panel. He saw some homeless people grouped together near Helsinki in the 1980s, but even then there were many shelters and hostel beds.

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Homeless advocate Chrissy Brett at a homeless encampment at Strathcona Park, in Vancouver, on Dec. 4, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

In 2008, the country adopted a national policy based on “Housing First” philosophy, whose advocates say that providing permanent housing is the first priority in solving the crisis. As a result, shelters were converted into comfortable permanent homes, with staff on hand to support those with addictions, or in need of life skills and training and work placement.

Housing First advocates say that research has shown stable housing for all people has proven to be the most effective remedy, both for improving lives and saving money.

One such study from 2009, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, saw costs to Seattle’s public-health system drop by 60 per cent after the first six months, when chronically homeless people with severe alcoholism obtained stable homes.

In Finland, residents have their own apartments with rental contracts, and if necessary, they receive a housing benefit. Former homeless people are involved at the national level in the planning of social housing at the city level, Mr. Kaakinen said.

“The message from homeless people about homelessness has always been that it has to be a permanent housing, a safe place – not a shelter or a hostel. And so, since 2008, our policy has been based on this principle of providing permanent housing on rental contract, and support if that’s needed. … It’s been a partnership between the states, the government, local authorities and NGOs [non-governmental organizations] working at the national and local level.

“Of course, in practice, the greatest responsibility is on the cities … and we have homeless people represented in the national programs, in the steering groups. They are taking part in planning the services in the cities. I think that it has been a very pragmatic and successful way to work.”

The Y-Foundation started to buy private apartments throughout Finland in 1985, with grants obtained from the government-run Finland Slot Machine Association, he says. The grant covered 50 per cent of the price of an apartment, and today they also purchase apartments without grant money.

About 80 per cent of the apartments are subleased to municipalities and NGOs, who rent them out and provide support services, if needed. Revenues cover operating costs. NGOs and municipalities also develop new affordable housing. In Finland’s large urban centres, 25 per cent of all new housing must be for social housing. There’s no visible difference between private and public housing.

“It makes the idea of a more equal society a reality,” says Mr. Kaakinen. “It has obvious social benefits, and it has also a huge psychological importance [because] everybody can have the feeling that they belong to this society.”

Victoria resident Tina Dawson, 52, told the panel about her experience as a first-time homeless person in the past year, moving between shelters and encampments. People in her position need to be empowered and maintain their dignity, she said.

“Being newly homeless, I am gob-smacked at the way things are out of sight, out-of-mind, and the machine that is in place to keep people homeless. How on earth am I going to get out of this position? I’ve managed my entire life. I’ve raised three children. And I have no address. The problem is [putting together] the damage deposit. I’m on permanent disability. That’s hand to mouth.”

Panel member Leilani Farha, lawyer and global director of Ottawa-based affordable housing initiative The Shift, later said in an interview that part of the success of Finland is the national mindset around homelessness. It’s simply not an option.

“People have a right to housing as part of their constitution. They have embraced it. It’s a different culture,” said Ms. Farha, who travelled the world for six years visiting homeless encampments when she worked as the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing.

Finland is a smaller country and highly regulated, so it’s more difficult for rents to escalate as they have in Canada, she adds. Helsinki, for example, owns the majority of land within the city limits, and operates an in-house construction company. But Canada, says Ms. Farha, could learn to think boldly and creatively, like the Finns. Why, for example, hasn’t Canada embraced a Housing First approach, she asks.

“I think people are beginning to realize that housing is just completely unaffordable, and we don’t have much social housing in this country – we have very little actually. So I think people are cottoning onto the idea that the average family person working at a minimum wage job could easily end up homeless. I think that’s changing, but I don’t know that we’re there yet.

“What I see in governments around Canada is a timidity around bold creative moves that are value based, and I think now is the time.

“We need some bold creativity, come on. I’m seeing all these things happening in other countries. Where is it in Canada?”

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