How did Finland „fix“ homelessness?

A Joint Research Paper has the answers!

Summary of joint research project as part of the Master program at Vienna University of Business and Economics, supervised by ao. Univ.-Prof. Dr. Andreas Novy, Multi-Level Governance Institute.


It is actually hard to overlook them when passing by in the city: more and more homeless people sleep rough on our streets. Muffled in their sleeping bags and surrounded by a thin blanket they try to make it through the cold nights. While European cities experience an unprecedented rise of homeless people, Finland actually managed to achieve a decline of homelessness through its policies. By 2015 the number of affected people sank from 18.000 under 7,000 homeless people. How come Finland has been so effective in preventing long-term homelessness?

This article is a brief summary of the research project conducted by Anja-Therese Salomon and Elisabeth Kiegerl at Vienna University of Business and Economics. The research paper describes housing as a human right and analyses the case study of Housing First in Finland. Precisely, it elaborates on the extent of homelessness in Finland and evaluates the different policy opportunities and challenges of this specific Housing First strategy under a multi-level governance perspective (Tainio and Fredriksson, 2009, p.183).

As cities become the magnifiers of general socio-economic problems it refers to issues of social, economic and political governability. This brings up new questions on how cities have to be governed (Rashid, 2009, p.3; Léautier, 2006, p.69). Thus, urban governance determines the capacity of cities to address social innovation and guides social change as well as structural transitions (Sachs-Jeantet, Unesco).

In this context the following research question arises “Which policy processes, that contributed to mainstreaming Housing First in Finland, led to a system change in housing policy between 2008 until 2015?” In order to answer this question, the research project analyses the governance shift of the housing first approach in Finland to long-term homelessness instead of the common staircase model. By applying the theoretical framework of Keck and Sikkink on policy processes this research project uses an innovative approach to fill the fundamental research gap. Thus, it determines the links between policy influencing activities, outputs and any change in policy.

The methods used in this paper involve policy reviews in combination with archival research and two semi-structured interviews with Peter Fredriksson, Senior Adviser in the Finnish Ministry of the Environment and Juha Kaakinen, CEO of Y-Foundation.

A simple solution to prevent homelessness? – Homes. Housing First in Finland:

Since the original development of housing first in the US, many different forms of Housing First evolved (Pleace, p.4). Although Finland developed its strategy independently it has been one of the most successful countries drawing on housing first principles.

In general, most crucial shifts in thinking that have taken place during the past two decades are the fact that chronic homelessness can be ended rather than merely managed (Gladwell, 2006, p. 96). Housing First (HF) is an evidence-based program model (National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices, 2007) assisting individuals with serious mental illness who have experienced homelessness, incarceration, and hospitalization to obtain permanent housing and move forward in recovery. HF provides immediate access to permanent housing with ongoing consumer-driven support services. This approach stands in contrast to a traditional provider-driven staircase approach that requires temporary or transitional housing and treatment placements before accessing permanent housing (Padgett, Gulcur, & Tsemberis, 2006).

In the end, HF in Finland developed from a localised practice to a mainstream policy strategy. It is a story in which social innovation entails the transfer of power to new actors and also entails issues of coordination of these new governance assets, both at the local and the supra-local level. As pointed out by Weinzierl et al. (2015, p.11) “Housing First was initiated in cooperation between the local administration and social service providers and it must be seen as a case of bottom-linked social innovation”.

In terms of mainstreaming HF as a social innovation this seems precisely interesting because first, it is argued that Housing First in general is still a local innovation: Although there are similar projects going on in other countries, cities and provinces “they do not seem to be systematically referring to each other” (Weinzierl et al, 2015, p. 15). This is also the reason why it is difficult to draw any general conclusions regarding the results, because the housing first concept has created projects that differ from one another in terms of the range of problems associated, the ownership of housing stock, the organisation of services or the size and skills of staff (Atherton and McNaughton Nicholls, 2008).

Theoretical analysis and genesis of Housing First Services in Finland

“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.” (Hollander, 2016)

The Finnish applications of the Housing First model are not particularly faithful to the original American model. According to the Ministry of the Environment (2015, p. 13), the report on “The Finnish Homelessness Strategy” suggests that the most important issue in the Finnish homelessness policy is, first, permanence of housing and, second, the principle of harm reduction and, third, the right of the customers to make choices with regard to support services.

The precise beginning of Housing First in Finland dates back to the 1980s when the Ministry of the Environment was established in 1983 and housing formed part of the institution’s policy package. According to the interview with Peter Fredriksson (2017), this was a very decisive moment as the social policy administration started to cooperate with the housing administration. Second, new legislative processes enabled the creation of the Y-Foundation in 1995 providing attitudinal change where homelessness was addressed by both general and special instruments of housing and social policies. Concomitantly, it was then that the country’s government decided to tackle a homelessness problem that had been growing exponentially throughout the post-War years.

The first step towards a procedural change in policy (Jones and Villar, 2008) was made between the period 1987 to 1991, when measures to reduce homelessness operated alongside existing housing and social policy instruments. The result of the procedural change in government processes was accompanied by an attitudinal change of multi-level authorities and hence opened policy dialogue: cooperation started to be seen as a core part of a local authority’s services. Consequently, multi-level participation between housing, social welfare, health authorities and services for the homeless became crucial components of their housing policy. In addition, evidence-based coaching by professional social workers suggested the social services for homeless in Helsinki to be centralised at one social service office (Kärkkäinen et al., 1998, pp. 17-24).

The strong discursive commitment mentioned by Jones and Villar (2008), meaning the recognition of specific groups and other policy actors, came out via the emergence and collaboration commitment of a significant number of new actors: The Act on the Development of Housing Conditions of 1985 obliged local authorities to improve housing conditions for homeless via specific measures. Evidence and advice as a policy-influencing tool was applied when the Housing Fund of Finland in cooperation with the local authorities and scientists, created a monitoring system for homelessness on data collection every year. This procedure strongly expressed the attitudinal change via the formal help of legislative interpretation of public authorities to promote the right of everyone to housing and to the opportunity to arrange their own housing (Tainio and Fredriksson, 2009, p.185).

A new programme and its strategies to reduce long-term Homelessness

In 2008 further procedural change was carried out by the government through launching the national programme for the reduction of long-term homelessness and its prevention, known as Paavo I and II. The basic idea is that the state has its obligation to help, to fund and to make legislation and local programs in the social and housing sector (Peter Fredriksson, 2017).

The initiative is based on a strong negotiative character and was led by the so-called ‘Four Wise Men[1], whereas its aims and methods were quite radical: With an aim to halve numbers by 2011 and end it entirely by 2015, it converted homeless shelters in Finland’s biggest cities into rental housing. In addition, 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.

These processes are based on a systematic funding system. Money comes from the ministry and companies such as ARA (Housing Finance and Development Centre of Finland) and Finnish Slot Machine (RAY), which is an association of associations and generally provides money to NGO´s working in the social health area. Finnish Slot Machine mainly funded up to 50% of the direct purchase of flats from the private market. This enables Y-Foundation to keep the rent lower for homeless people in comparison to local market rent prices (Kaakinen, 2016).

Paavo I & II:

The goal of the action plans is to link the work on homelessness more extensively to the whole of the work on preventing social exclusion based on the Housing First principle. In the aforementioned programme, a main driver that included strategies (e.g. one’s own home and privacy; conversion of shelters; housing advice and prevention of eviction; civil action: taking responsibility, peer support and building communities) to make HF become a mainstream policy strategy, starting in 2008 until 2011, was named “Paavo I”. Under the common programme, a total of 1,250 housing units, supported housing units or places in care were being allocated to the long-term homeless in ten cities with the largest percentages of homeless people.

In addition, the strong discursive commitment by various actors towards the long-term goal of reducing homelessness and in turn prevent evictions can also be found in the second programme period to reduce homelessness: Paavo II run between 2012 and 2015 focused on developing scattered housing alternatives with floating support and preventative services. This program also includes services for young people, housing advice as well as cooperation with social and health care services that have been developed to base effective measures on evidence-based grounds (Ministry of the Environment, 2015, p. 21).

Besides, the general political will is also grounded in economic evaluations that were carried out and show remarkable results: When a homeless person gets a proper home and support services, it brings savings for society around 40.000 Euro per year and per one person. Consequently, it is economically justifiable to house homeless people (Kaakinen, 2016).

To conclude, Finland’s results are based on excellent cooperation. The homeless person works together with a support person to solve practical life problems and explore opportunities for education, work and other activities, for example. Overall, this comprehensive model has proven to be effective. Thus, it is clear that facilitating the individual’s normal interaction with the rest of society is the best way to both prevent and reduce homelessness.


This paper identified key dimensions of policy impact according to the theoretical framework of Keck and Sikkink on policy processes and shows how HF in Finland enabled a new pathway of how the whole sector of social services can be transformed; it is a paradigm shift as it means more than just providing a place to live and it promotes social integration through the delivery of settled and independent housing (Quilgars, 2016, p.2). The HF approach in Finland distinguishes itself through the multi-level participation between housing, social welfare and finance authorities for homeless people that is strongly based on cooperation and the general political consensus among the parties.

Also, one of the major steps of HF in Finland to become a national strategy has been made possible through unique funding support systems (Kaakinen, 2016).

As a result, it reshaped the discourse in Finland towards collective evidence-based and deliberative transformation on restructuring the housing market and a more inclusive governance regime (Novy, 2015, p.11ff; Weinzierl et al, 2015 p.14). All of these policy processes have led to a national strategy. In the course of this, policy processes highly influence HF possibility to consolidate at the local level, but also its potential of spreading at higher scales and influencing mainstream welfare policies (Colombo, 2016, p.18).

Written by Anja-Therese Salomon and Elisabeth Kiegerl


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