Beyond the COVID crisis: can emergency measures be turned into systemic change to end homelessness?

Beyond the COVID crisis: can emergency measures be turned into systemic change to end homelessness?

Finland has seen unusual levels of success in reducing rough sleeping and long-term homelessness. Can its learnings inform strategies in the UK? Juha Kaakinen, CEO of the Y-Foundation – a key player in this process – offers his view of the best way forward

Homelessness in Finland has now decreased for eight years in a row. According to the latest statistics, there are 4,341 single homeless people in the country, of whom 64% (almost 3,000) are living temporarily with friends or relatives. In addition, there are 201 homeless couples or families.

This positive development is based on a strong political commitment, continuous and pragmatic national programmes to end homelessness, a culture of collaboration, and a systemic change of homelessness services from temporary accommodation to permanent housing solutions using the Finnish Housing First approach. We are now approaching functional zero homelessness – but our present government has an even more ambitious goal: to halve homelessness by 2023, and to reach absolute zero by 2027.

COVID-19 has not changed Finland’s homelessness policy – and, since the number of people in temporary accommodation in shelters and hostels was already low, the pandemic has not had a dramatic impact on the Finnish homeless population. But it has certainly highlighted the importance of permanent housing solutions, and of addressing the housing needs of people living temporarily with friends and relatives.

Globally, the response to COVID-19 in relation to homelessness has been extremely diverse. On the one hand, there has been total indifference: fining homeless people for being in the wrong place at the wrong time; forcing them into overcrowded shelters or open parking lots. On the other hand, some states and cities have opened new shelters, introduced eviction moratoriums, and housed homeless people in empty hotels. Some cities have even purchased hotels to be used for supported housing.

Most of these measures have been regarded as health-related emergency actions to protect homeless people (or/and the general population) from COVID-19. There are, however, encouraging signs of growing awareness of the urgent need to find more permanent and sustainable solutions. The big question at the moment is if these emergency measures can be turned into genuine systemic change to address and end homelessness.

In this context, the ‘Everyone In’ campaign in England (and similar programmes in the devolved nations) is intriguing. Housing more than 10,000 homeless people from the streets in hotel accommodation in practically a few days has been hailed, rightly, as a unique achievement. It wouldn’t have been possible without the strong steering role of the government, as well as unforeseen collaborations between local actors.

Everyone In challenges the traditional theory of creating systemic change: by decision-making based solely on a normal legislative process. It would be interesting and valuable to compare the development of homelessness in England after the Homelessness Reduction Act of 2017 and after Everyone in. Another dimension worth considering is time: if it is possible to end street homelessness practically in a few days, why on earth are we setting goals for the years 2027 or 2030? To decide to end homelessness by 2030 is factually a death sentence for many homeless people.

A constant state of emergency

During the pandemic, swift measures such as Everyone In have been justified by the COVID-19 emergency – but homelessness is a very special kind of societal problem that should be treated as a constant state of emergency.

However, the prevalent way of tackling social problems leans heavily on a model of individual therapeutic recovery. The logic of change for this model is that you must try to upscale by replicating: doing more of the same with more resources. It also means that if you try to change the support system, you are working with a ‘moving target’ group – as homeless people who have not yet qualified for this personal support have to navigate their own way using their individual survival strategies.

In short, something which on an individual level is irreplaceable is not working when there is a need for systemic change. This individualistic model may be one explanation for the difficulties in upscaling the Housing First approach experienced by many countries.

As homelessness represents a constant state of emergency, it should be tackled with the same array of measures as epidemics – and as Everyone In has shown, there is a fast track to end homelessness. It may be that some of the momentum with Everyone In has already been lost, but with bold and swift action, a lot can still be saved.

Ending homelessness requires systemic change: from a support system based on temporary accommodation to one underpinned by permanent housing. So, what could come after Everyone In, and what must be done to avoid Everyone In again? Here’s a modest proposal for a fast track to end homelessness in the UK: an organisation to acquire (either by buying or renting) 10,000 dwellings in three months to start off with; purchasing and converting potential hotels and hostels into supportive housing; and pooling funding streams from different administrative branches for Housing First support.

Of course, this is still only a short-term proposal. It is not intended to undermine the profound importance of creating a sufficient supply of affordable social housing, and properly using it – but that is a whole other story.

The big lessons from COVID-19 have been the crucial role of government, the importance of time – and the proper timing of actions. If we seriously want to end homelessness, there is no more time to waste.

Juha Kaakinen is CEO of the Y-Foundation, one of the key national developers of the Housing First principle in Finland