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Helsinki Effectively Eradicates Homelessness On City Streets

In some countries, homelessness continues to rise, yet in Finland, the number of people living on the streets has plummeted. In Helsinki, the capital, homelessness has nearly been eradicated thanks to the innovative approach the city has taken.

"In my childhood I remember there were hundreds, or even thousands of people sleeping in the parks and forests," says Helsinki's deputy mayor Sanna Vesikansa. "It was visible, but we don't have it any more. Street homelessness doesn't exist in Helsinki."

For the past three decades, local governments have been committed to tackling homelessness. In 1987, there were more than 18,000 people without a home. The latest figures show that there are now less than 6,600 people. Since most are afforded temporary housing or live with family and friends, there are very few people left on the streets.

Since 2007, local governments have enacted the "Housing First" principle, giving homeless people a stable and permanent home as soon as possible. It also provides homeless populations with a support system, including drug and alcohol counseling, job training, education or work.

Thomas Salmi, who became homeless at 18, spent three years on the streets. "When you lose everything, it really doesn't matter," he says. "You're thinking about suicide, am I going to die? Is it safe? It is cold, especially in the middle of winter. If you're sleeping outside you might die."

For the past two years, Thomas, now 24, has lived in an apartment managed by the Helsinki Deaconess Institute (HDI), an organization that provides housing for homeless residents. Living at the HDI has helped Thomas curtail his drinking and find stability.

Housing First offers homeless people housing without conditions. Even those abusing drugs or alcohol are afforded accommodation as long as they keep in touch with counselors. Rent is paid through state housing benefits and people are allowed to stay as long as they wish. Currently, the Helsinki Deaconess Institute has more than 400 apartments available.

"They told me that it's my house," Thomas says. "And I asked them - is someone going to tell me, 'we need this house and you have to go'? But they told me 'No, it's your house, you can do whatever you want.' When I have a stable home, I can try to build everything else around it like work, studying, family, friends. But when you're on the streets, you don't have any of that."

In the complex, tenants cook together and interact with support workers. Pia Rosenberg, 64, lived on the streets for two years but has been at a Housing First project since 2014. "It suits me good because I'm an alcoholic and I'm allowed to drink in my room," she says. "And if I need help, then I get it. You don't feel good if you don't have a home."

Though the Finnish system is working, it is not without expense. Finland has spent roughly 300 million euros in the past ten years, providing 3,500 homes and over 300 new support workers. When asked if it could work in other countries, Juha Kaakinen, one of the originators of Housing First in Finland, says, "In many places, Housing First are small projects with a small number of flats available. You need to make it much bigger to end homelessness and for that reason it should be a national policy otherwise it won't work."

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Vesikansa believes that ending homelessness is not only a moral obligation but also economically sensible. "We know already that it pays back because we have expenses elsewhere if people are homeless. They have more severe health problems which are then taken to emergency care and hospital,” she says. "Homelessness and rough sleeping is something we just can't have in our cities, people dying on the streets. It's not the type of society or city we want to live in."

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