While the number of people living on the streets of other countries continues to increase, Finland is finding solutions that work.
In 1987, the Scandinavian nation's homeless population was an estimated 18,000. Thirty years later, the figure had dropped to 7,112. Only 415 people were sleeping outside or in emergency shelters. Eighty-four percent of those lacking their own homes lived with family members or friends.
The key to the dramatic improvement is a “housing first” policy that focuses on creating homes for chronically homeless Finns. The government deems housing a basic right of all of the country's residents, even those with mental-health problems and addictions.
One of the reasons homelessness persists in the United States and elsewhere is that authorities often reject housing program applicants who drink alcohol or do other drugs. Finnish officials accept everyone and provide support services to help them deal with their issues. Clients also receive assistance in applying for government aid and finding employment.
The biggest challenge has been creating enough housing to meet the need. Finland has done that in a variety of ways, from renovating buildings for residential use to erecting apartment complexes. Tenants pay rent with money from their jobs or welfare checks.
Public opinion regarding homelessness is different in Finland than in places where it is common to blame the poor for their predicaments. “The Finnish attitude is that we have to help people who are in the most difficult position, whatever the reason they have become homeless,” Juha Kaakinen, who designed the “housing first” initiative, told The Huffington Post. “We understand very well that the main reasons behind homelessness are structural reasons.”
An early champion of the anti-homelessness crusade was Jan Vapaavuori, a right-wing politician who later became mayor of Helsinki. Kaakinen pointed out that when conservatives demonstrate “social consciousness,” bold reforms do not seem so radical.
The high cost of housing and services is the most formidable obstacle. However, studies indicate that the program saves about 15,000 euros (17,000 U.S. dollars) annually for each formerly homeless person who no longer incurs expenses related to police, jails and hospitals.
Finland is setting an example that the United States should follow, according to Nan Roman of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. She called for a greater “commitment” to establish the “social safety net” necessary for a large-scale housing effort.
Homelessness is on the rise in America due to the soaring cost of rent and stagnant wages. Working-class people's incomes are failing to keep up with inflation. In 2018, researchers at Harvard University found that more than 38 million U.S. households – 146 percent more than in 2001 – were struggling to afford housing.
In last year's annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) said 552,830 people were living at shelters, in transitional housing or outdoors. That was almost 2,000 more than the previous year. There was a 2 percent increase in the number of Americans sleeping on the street, and in vehicles, parks and abandoned buildings. About half of that so-called “unsheltered population” was in California.
Despite the widespread perception that homeless people are predominately single men with mental-health or addiction issues, about a third of those without their own homes are families with children. Another myth is that homelessness is primarily an urban problem. The crisis is actually greater in rural parts of the country. Small towns often lack sufficient housing programs and treatment services.
HUD reported that although African-Americans are just 13 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 40 percent of the homeless. Nearly a third of homeless military veterans are black.
Affordable housing is rarely a hot topic for politicians campaigning for office. That could change in the 2020 presidential race. One of the Democratic candidates, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is the lead sponsor of the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act. The goal of the legislation is to end homelessness in the United States.
Warren proposes a 10-year, $450 billion program to provide affordable rental homes for the poorest Americans and down-payment assistance for first-time homebuyers. According to a press release from the senator's office, a public-private partnership would “produce more than 3 million new housing units, reduce rents for working families by 10 percent, and create 1.5 million jobs.” The bill would outlaw housing discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status and source of income.
To cover the cost of the ambitious initiative, Warren advocates an increase in the estate tax. “These changes will affect only about 10,000 of the wealthiest families in the country,” the senator wrote. She also has come out in favor of a “wealth tax” targeting the top one-tenth of 1 percent.
Warren pointed out that “housing is the biggest expense for most working families; and costs for everyone, everywhere, are skyrocketing.” She added: “This proposal will attack the rising cost of housing by helping to roll back needlessly restrictive local zoning rules, and taking down other barriers that keep American families from living in neighborhoods with good jobs and good schools.”