How Finland’s Housing First scheme can end street homelessness in the UK

Experts from homelessness charities and the housing sector descended on the Finnish ambassador’s residence in London to answer that question and The Big Issue went along to find out more

“Housing First changed my life and without it I would be dead,” Single Homeless Project’s Wayne Craft tells a packed room in the Finnish ambassador to the UK’s residence in London. “Housing First gave the confidence and the power to make my own decisions. I hope that the people here can use it to catch people who are younger than I was.

“It’s really sad that we are in 2019 and we are just at the stage of discussing it.”

The 57-year-old is one of just a few hundred people who have experienced Housing First in the UK. The pioneering model of tackling homelessness has been credited with ending street homelessness in Finland after being invented in New York City.

Housing First changed my life and without it I would be dead

It is a simple concept. Rather than making rough sleepers jump through hoops to access the housing they need to put their life back together, Housing First provides a home alongside intensive support for the individual’s complex needs.

The model has proven such a hit in the Scandinavian country since the Y Foundation introduced it 30 years ago that it has made the Finns approach to homelessness the envy of the world and that is why The Big Issue wrote about it just a month ago.

It is also why the Finnish Embassy has invited the brightest minds in the housing and homelessness sector to assemble in London to learn about the scheme and discuss best practice.

The Scottish government is developing its own version of the Finnish model, as is homelessness social enterprise Social Bite. The UK government are currently running trials in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands, where the first rough sleepers have moved into accommodation, to see how it will fit in England.

Smaller pilots and studies are also popping up, one of which was just cancelled in Sheffield last week. 

The £300k project was axed, with the city’s council citing a lack of available single accommodation while some rough sleepers allegedly professed a preference for begging.

According to Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes, around 350 people in the UK have received Housing First support, while a further 18,500 still need it.

Wayne is one of those people. His heartfelt, honest story of how the model has helped him to put a stop to his 54 prison sentences and drug addiction is just one of those being shared at the event, alongside Sparkes’ appraisal of the state of play for Housing First in the UK.

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It is a far cry from the reality in Finland. Y Foundation boss Juha Kaakinen also addressed the crowd showing how social rent homes were mixed in with private rented homes in Helsinki. He also put into perspective how social rent homes built in the UK have plummeted to the same level as Finland despite having 13 times more people living on these isles. As he put it, “In order to have Housing First you need housing first.”

But while the scaling up of the model to a national scale will be dependent on the three pilots in England, Housing First has already had success at a local level.

Threshold’s Anita Birchall spoke of how tailoring Housing First to gender has made a big difference in Greater Manchester.

The charity’s programme works with women who have been released from prison, using Housing First to curb reoffending rates and protect women from violence.

Now in its fourth year, a study from partners York University found that 90 per cent of the women in the programme have so far been able to sustain a tenancy.

“It’s about recognising that all people have strengths and are resourceful and capable of making their own decisions,” she said.

“We think of women having a home as a place where they can feel long-term belonging and build links to the community with a focus on preventing reoffending.

“A gendered service delivering a different service for women will deliver different results. Collaboration is key but there is a gap in how we define what Housing First is in the country – we need to have a shared vision of Housing First that we can all get behind.”

But housing does remain a problem – meaning that instead of taking 28 days to find each woman in the programme accommodation, the average waiting time is 71 days.

That is a job for Communities Secretary James Brokenshire, who closed the event. He insisted that Housing First was one of the first plans he put into place after taking over from now-Home Secretary Sajid Javid last April, with the three pilots announced shortly after.

And his main focus for the year is now one that The Big Issue also shares – and one that is at the very heart of Housing First – prevention.

“I do see this issue as one of the defining social injustices of our time,” the cabinet minister said. “It can’t be right that in this country people lack the simple comfort of a warm bed at the end of a hard day. That’s why we have made rough sleeping such a focus, particularly on prevention and early intervention. The Homelessness Reduction Act is a sign of our preventative approach. This year is about how we focus on that prevention aspect. It is a simple approach to a complex issue.”