Finland is the only EU country where the number of people experiencing homelessness is going down. This is no coincidence. Since the 1980s, the state, municipalities and NGOs have been working hard to end homelessness.

Homelessness in Finland 

According to a survey by ARA, there were 3,429 homeless people in Finland in 2023. The number of single homeless people has fallen to less than a fifth since 1987, when the statistics were first compiled. Of the total number of homeless people, just under a third are long-term homeless. A long-term homeless person has been homeless for at least one year or has been homeless several times in the last three years. The long-term homeless person often has a social or health problem that makes housing substantially more difficult, such as dept, substance abuse or mental health problems. Long-term homelessness is prolonged due to the inability of mainstream housing solutions to work or the lack of appropriate support services. 

In Finland, homelessness is concentrated in the capital region and other growth centers. It is estimated that around two thirds of homeless people live temporarily with friends and relatives due to lack of housing. Immigrants account for around a quarter of homeless people, 22% of women and 15% of people under the age of 25. These statistics are indicative, but they allow us to monitor major changes and long-term trends in homelessness. 

Finland has managed to reduce homelessness in recent years, but homelessness as a phenomenon is still alive and well. The homelessness situation often escalates in the context of social and economic crises. 

Defining homelessness

A person is considered homeless if they do not have their own tenancy or owner-occupied accommodation. Homeless people include people sleeping on the streets and in stairwells, people living in institutions, and people staying temporarily with relatives or acquaintances. 

In Finland, homelessness is understood in a broad sense. The Housing Finance and Development Centre of Finland (ARA) divides homelessness into five categories based on the type of homelessness: 

  • sleeping outdoors, in stairwells, in overnight shelters 
  • living in dormitories, accommodation establishments 
  • living in various types of institutions 
  • temporarily staying with acquaintances or relatives 

The European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA) has developed the ETHOS classification, which categorizes homelessness in different ways: 

  • sleeping on the street 
  • sleeping in overnight shelters 
  • people living in accommodation for the homeless (homeless hostels, temporary accommodation) 
  • people living in women’s shelters 
  • Immigrants living in accommodations 
  • Released from institutions 
  • In addition, the ETHOS classification specifies those living under the threat of homelessness and in inadequate housing conditions 

A broad definition increases understanding of the diversity of the homelessness phenomenon and considers the wide range of reasons that can lead to homelessness. Homelessness with a broad definition is also easier to prevent. 

Homelessness work in Finland 

Finnish homelessness work has a long history. The situation of the homeless became part of the public debate already in the 1970s and Y-Säätiö was established to solve the problem of homelessness in 1985. The first day centers were opened for the homeless in the 1980s and a major structural change in mental health services was initiated in the 1990s, when institutions were closed, and mental health services began to be taken to the person’s home. Homelessness began to be managed through housing and housing policy, when the dormitories began to be converted into support and service housing units. Homelessness work began to be steered by the state, responsibilities were defined, and binding steering tools were introduced. 

Homelessness in Finland has not decreased by chance. Since 2008, Finnish homelessness work has been based on the Housing First model. The implementation of the model has been guided by national homelessness programs that have produced more affordable housing, hired and trained housing social professionals, established use of experience experts in homelessness work, and invested in preventing homelessness. Through the programs, the Housing First model was established for use in Finnish homelessness work. 

Reasons for homelessness 

Homelessness is a social problem driven by population growth, urbanization, economic cycles, and large income inequality. If society is unable to meet the growing demand for housing, the situation in the housing market will tighten. The need for housing exceeds supply, resulting in higher house prices and rents, which increases the risk of homeless people becoming disadvantaged. 

At the individual level, risk factors for homelessness include poverty, difficulties in life management, substance abuse and mental health problems, lack of social resources, and changes in life situation such as illness, separation, moving to another locality and becoming unemployed. 

The number of homeless people and the duration of homelessness are also affected by the kind of support society offers to homeless people and those living under the threat of homelessness. 

Housing first 

Housing first is a principle, operating model and way of thinking that guides Finnish homelessness work

The Housing First principle is guided by the idea that housing is a part of human rights and a fundamental human right. In the Housing First model, all work done for people experiencing homelessness is based on the premise that the first support offered to a person is their own apartment. 

Most often, the Housing First model is implemented by the state, wellbeing services counties, municipality or city (and within them, for example, social services and/or health care), companies, organizations, real estate companies, property owners and developers. The actors involved in solving homelessness vary depending on how the services are organized in the city. 

The Housing First model can be applied either in distributed apartments or in a housing unit. Getting an apartment is not tied to a change in life or receiving services. 

The Housing First Model

The Housing First model is implemented according to four different principles. 

  • Enabling independent living
  • Freedom of Choice and Influence
  • Rehabilitation and empowerment
  • Reintegration into society 

You can read more about how to implement the Housing First Europe model in the Housing First Europe guide. 

The Housing First model differs from the principle previously used in homelessness work, where a person experiencing homelessness had to recover from a substance abuse problem, for example, before getting their own apartment. This model is called a staircase model. There are problems with the staircase model, as many times moving from one step to another is not possible and those experiencing homelessness are stuck in temporary housing solutions, for example. 

The staircase housing model often requires sobriety, commitment to care, and the skills required for independent living before getting one’s own home. The staircase model often fails to meet these requirements and service users are evicted from their homes. The Housing First model is based on the idea that getting an apartment will help solve other health and social problems. 

The main objective of the Housing First model is to ensure the continuity of housing. In addition to the apartment, the model includes the provision of support services. The role of support services is central to the success of the model. In addition to securing housing, the Housing First model aims to promote health and well-being, support social support networks and integration into the community, and participate in meaningful activities. Services are implemented by multi-professional teams. 

The application of the model has reinforced the idea that it is possible for a rehabilitee to survive in a regular rental apartment with the right kind of support. 

The Finnish Housing First model 

Designed for anyone experiencing or threatened with homelessness.

Different types of permanent housing options:

Distributed housing and subsidized housing units. Options for specific needs and circumstance.

Customized support services

Individual support seeks to address a variety of challenges in a person's life.

Affordable housing

400,000 state-subsidized rental apartments. The tenant selection is guided by the applicant's need for housing.

Homelessness Prevention

Anticipatory measures: identifying the risk of homelessness and the importance of early intervention and support.

Low-threshold work activities

Strengthening/attention to the individual's strengths and skills and increasing inclusion in line with the individual's abilities and goals.

Normality principle

Normal leases and social and health services.

The Housing First model can help to end homelessness if the structures are in place to support it. Housing First is predicated on building enough affordable housing and providing a range of housing options. In addition to tailor-made support, the Housing First model also relies heavily on the Finnish social security system. It is important that, as well as housing and support, individuals have meaningful activities in their daily lives. Many Housing First units therefore offer low-threshold work activities, which at their best bring out the strengths and skills of the individual and increase inclusion. One of the Finnish activities supporting the Housing First model is also housing counselling, which can address housing problems at an early stage.