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  • Raija Hilska and the Honourable V White

Housing the homeless

Image is a 2016 Graffiti of Homelessness in Quebec City

Article by the Honourable Vern White, SSMWhite Consulting

Raija Hilska, Councillor, Canadian Nordic Society

The “Ending Homelessness Is Possible: Lessons From Finland” forum was held at Carleton’s Dominion Chalmers Conference Center in Ottawa on January 16th, 2024.  Moderated by the CBC’s Catherine Cullen (“The House”), forum panelists included:

  • Teija Ojankoski, CEO of Finland’s Y-Foundation (Finland’s largest national non-profit landlord)

  • Juha Kahila, Y-Foundation’s Head of International Affairs

  • Sean Fraser, Minister of Housing, Infrastructure, and Communities of Canada

  • Jocelyn Formsma, Executive Director of the National Association of Native Friendship Centres, and Board Chair of the National Indigenous Collaborative Housing Inc.

The event was staged in partnership with the Canadian Housing & Renewal Association, Carleton University, the Safe & Affordable grant, and the Housing Assessment Resource Tool (HART).

Sitting in a crowded converted church at Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre, we heard from Finnish representatives Juha Kahila and Teija Ojankoski about how Finland spent a couple of decades fighting homelessness and how they have performed in this battle.

Along with the Finnish representatives we had Federal Minister of Housing Infrastructure and Communities Sean Fraser as well as Jocelyn Formsma, who is the CEO of the National Association of Friendship Centres, participating.

These four people would speak about the challenges of providing housing to the homeless and how one jurisdiction, Finland, appears to have found the secret formula.

The Finns talked about what they saw in the late 80’s and that their government decided collectively that the homelessness could not continue. The movement to combat homelessness began with an agreement among the elected, regardless of what party they belonged to, that they would put aside their political beliefs and work together to find and support a solution.

After we received our welcome from a First Nations elder, the presenters walked through the process that Finland followed and clearly articulated the success they had achieved by focusing on a few key elements.

The key elements of Finland's successful battle against homelessness included:

Housing First Model: which prioritizes providing stable housing as the initial and central step in addressing homelessness. In this approach, individuals experiencing homelessness are provided with permanent housing without preconditions, such as sobriety or participation in treatment programs.

Prevention Strategies: with a strong emphasis on preventing homelessness before it occurs. Identifying individuals and families at risk of homelessness and intervening early to provide support, financial assistance, and other resources to prevent them from losing their homes.

Supportive “Wrap Around” Services: Alongside housing, Finland recognized the importance of providing ongoing support services to address the complex needs of individuals experiencing homelessness. Support services included mental health counselling, substance abuse treatment, employment assistance, and other forms of social support.

Collaboration and Coordination: Finland promoted collaboration and coordination among various stakeholders, including government agencies, municipalities, non-profit organizations,and the private sector. This integrated approach ensured a unified effort to address homelessness effectively.

Decentralized Approach: Finland's strategy involved decentralized decision-making, allowing local municipalities to tailor solutions based on their specific needs and resources. This flexibility enabled communities to address homelessness in ways that best suited their unique circumstances.

Social Housing Initiatives: Finland invested significantly in the construction of social housing units. These units are affordable and now provide a stable and secure housing option for individuals who have experienced homelessness.

Focus on Individual Needs: The Finnish approach recognized that homelessness is often a result of a combination of factors, including mental health issues, addiction, unemployment, and poverty. Tailoring interventions to address individual needs is a key component of their success.

Public Awareness and Education: Finland has worked to reduce the stigma associated with homelessness through public awareness campaigns and education. This helped create a more compassionate and understanding society.

When listening, it was clear that Finland has decided that the only way to beat the homelessness problem was to take the responsibility and initiative themselves. The results are clear as they have seen. Helsinki, as an example, fell from more than 2,000 people living in shelters to less than 200.

They have also decided that the best way to build homes for supported housing was to do it themselves. They created their own their own government construction company and have reduced the homelessness problem by 80%.

After every election since the program began the governing party re-asserts their support for the homelessness initiative and with that commitment comes the financial resources to continue to improve upon the initiative.

One thing that should be remembered by those who are taking on this fight is that the cost of working on these initiatives ends up being less expensive than not doing it. Reducing the cost homelessness has on policing, social services, healthcare and so on, can have a positive net impact on the community by spending money on the housing first initiative. 

Canada’s federal minister spoke of their government initiative which has a goal of reducing homelessness by 50% by 2027/28. He also spoke about the difficulties they are having catching up after covid, and that getting to their goal will be difficult but possible.

Jocelyn Formsma spoke of the work they are doing to support development of housing in urban, rural and northern areas for indigenous peoples. The challenge is that the money they receive for this development will not come close to meeting the ever-increasing demand.

Overall, an excellent discussion and the crowd enjoyed the conversation and insights, especially from the Finnish representatives. But we should remember that while Finland's success in addressing homelessness is widely celebrated, it's essential to note that the context and challenges surrounding homelessness can vary between countries. The Finnish model may not be directly replicable in every context, but the principles of prevention, housing-first, and comprehensive support services offer valuable lessons for other nations seeking to address homelessness effectively.

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