Whatever the numbers tell you, rough sleeping remains a notoriously tough problem to tackle.

Earlier this month the UK government revealed that the official count of people sleeping on the streets had fallen for the first time in eight years, down 84 people Britain-wide.

It was hailed in Westminster as a small step forward – but these figures are open to interpretation. It’s no secret that homelessness charities and experts believe the stats are a significant underestimate. Take a walk around your nearest high street and maybe you’ll agree. But that doesn’t change the fact that the cruel injustice of rough sleeping needs to be tackled and there are countries that can claim to have done just that.

So we decided to take a closer look at two of them, Finland and Hungary, to see if Britain could learn any lessons in the fight against homelessness.

‘Housing First has changed Helsinki’

Finland’s Housing First policy has long been held up as the blueprint for ending homelessness. It’s one of the reasons the Scandinavian country made our Changemakers 2019 list.

Housing First can claim to have reduced the number of homeless people from 18,000 when it started 30 years ago to the point where they have effectively ended street homelessness in the country of 5.5 million people.

The idea behind Housing First is simple. Rather than focusing on a sticking-plaster approach, rough sleepers are given a permanent home alongside the support they need to conquer complex issues.

It’s not just about having the idea – that needs to be backed up with the housing. More than 3,500 flats [PDF] have been given to rough sleepers in that time, while affordable homes are mixed in with private homes and are of such good quality that the two are said to be indistinguishable.

Finnish authorities are hoping to go even further by halving levels of homelessness in the next four years. Now, there are around 7,000 people homeless – virtually all indoors with very few rough sleepers.

As Juha Kaakinen, CEO of the Y-Foundation (which is behind Housing First in Finland) explains, this approach has had a big impact on the streets of Helsinki.

You can’t find people sleeping on the street.

“People sleeping rough don’t always want to go to shelters,” he tells The Big Issue. “That was one of the reasons why we decided that we have to work on something more permanent.

“We still have rough sleepers but we don’t have street homelessness in Helsinki, you can’t find people sleeping on the street. We know there are a group of people who go around in different places and occasionally also sleep rough. But the group is so small that it’s quite difficult work, you really have to do some digging to find them.

“In the city streets, you can see the marked difference when it comes to the situation of 10 years past or even a little bit further away. Housing First offering permanent housing solutions has really changed the situation in Helsinki.”

The innovation has revolutionised how experts think about tackling homelessness and its impact is starting to be seen in the UK – Kaakinen insists that where the UK used to lead it now follows.

The Housing First trial in the UK took place in Camden, North London in 2010, while there are currently pilot projects under way in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands. It is core to the charity Crisis’ End Homelessness campaign. Scotland has also embraced the idea, with social enterprise Social Bite’s own Housing Project aiming to house 800 people with £6.5m backing from the Scottish Government.

It’s really saddening to see how the situation has become so much worse.

Kaakinen says: “The UK is very special for me because when I was a very young civil servant in Helsinki’s homelessness services I visited London with a couple of my colleagues to learn how you deal with homelessness. There are some things that we took with us. For example, one was that we needed to have a day centre for homeless people.

“But now when I come to the UK it is very difficult for me because it has been a place I have learnt to look up to as a model and now it’s a completely different situation. It’s really saddening to see how the situation has become so much worse.”

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A rough sleeper in Budapest. Image: karmaprovesincere/Flickr

‘Hungary is going downhill’

In Hungary, the methods used to end rough sleeping are more brutal. A so-called rough-sleeping ban came into force in October after the Hungarian government, led by prime minister Viktor Orbán, changed the constitution last June.

That tweak made it illegal to sleep rough near cultural or important sites – affecting most of the capital Budapest – and news reports told tales of rough sleepers being locked up.

Hungary had been heading down this path throughout Orbán’s eight-year reign and the country is already in hot water with the European Parliament for its “declining democracy and rule of law”.

Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini penned a report slamming Orbán’s  regime in September and has called for Article 7 to be invoked, imposing sanctions to slash the funding Hungary receives from the EU. After a vote backed the move, the Council of Ministers is investigating – despite opposition from just three nations – Hungary of course, as well as Latvia and the UK. Theresa May reportedly didn’t wish to risk Orbán’s Brexit support, according to Sargentini.

While the political wrangling in Brussels has been slowly progressing, Orbán has launched an anti-EU and anti-migrant campaign while also targeting Hungarian-American liberal investor George Soros.

What they’re doing is picking on vulnerable groups,

Sargentini tells The Big Issue: “The legislation on criminalising rough sleeping was put in the Hungarian constitution after I published my report, which actually shows that, since September when we voted
things have continued to go downhill in Hungary. And it actually shows that the Hungarian government has no interest whatsoever in normalising the situation.

“What they’re doing is picking on vulnerable groups, whether they are Roma or LGBT or homeless people. They have a whole narrative around homelessness about how what they are doing is the right thing because people do not have to sleep on the streets while it’s cold outside.”

But how has the ban translated to the streets?

It hasn’t had an impact on the 6,000 rough sleepers in Hungary, according to two men working on the ground in Budapest.

Zoltán Gurály is a sociologist at homelessness group Menhely Alapítvány (Shelter Foundation) and tells The Big Issue that the matter is still dragging its feet in Hungary’s Constitutional Court.

There are many people whom we cannot find after they had gone to the suburbs,

“Gradually homeless people came back to the city centre of Budapest, and continue sleeping rough due to the pending decision,” he said. “But still, there are many people whom we cannot find after they had gone to the suburbs.

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Viktor Orbán. Image: Getty

“Sometimes the police still go to the subways and send people away, but they do not give warnings to them any more. We know only four cases when homeless people were sentenced in court, but none of them had to serve prison time.”

It is a similar story from Róbert Kepe, coordinator of the Budapest street paper Fedél Nélkül, who insists: “The law didn’t affect the job of our vendors, we can work where we did in the past.”

But that hasn’t stopped the row from rumbling on in Brussels. Orbán’s government refused to turn up to a debate on whether to invoke Article 7 at the end of January, with government spokesman Zoltán Kovács slamming opposition as “politically motivated”.

As for Sargentini, she insists that any sanctions on EU funding to avert Hungary’s democratic decline – and halting action against rough sleepers – will take a long time.

“As you can see with Brexit, European rules are only for the good times and not for bad times,” she says. “Normally you set up laws and legislations for times when things get messy but we don’t have that enough because the way forward in Europe has always been political will and there is no political will at the moment.”

Read the full article in this week's Big Issue.
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