Let’s fol­low Fin­land’s home­less so­lu­tion

The num­ber of rough sleep­ers in Britain is soar­ing, with deaths a weekly oc­cur­rence. It’s time to treat hous­ing as a ba­sic hu­man right

The Guardian Weekly - - Comment & Debate - Harry Quil­ter-Pin­ner

I “ was born in Liver­pool and grew up on a coun­cil estate. I had a clean home, toys and nice meals as a kid. When I was nine years old, the sex­ual abuse started. My abusers made me feel spe­cial. They gave me gifts, mon­eys, cig­a­rettes and sweets. When I was 13 I ran away from home and soon found my­self in the murky world of pros­ti­tu­tion on the streets. My life was out of con­trol.” This is how it all started for Si­mon. I met him 23 years later at SCT, a lo­cal char­ity I help to run in east Lon­don that of­fers sup­port to peo­ple who are home­less and face al­co­hol and drug ad­dic­tion. He used to make me cof­fee ev­ery morn­ing at the so­cial en­ter­prise cafe we run. He had spent years in and out of hos­tels and in­sti­tu­tions, as well as long spells on the streets.

When I met him, Si­mon was sober and work­ing for the first time in years. He said at the time that SCT “of­fered me the op­por­tu­nity to get my life back on track. Life is worth liv­ing now. I’m look­ing for­ward to my fu­ture.” Trag­i­cally, this fu­ture wasn’t to be: soon af­ter­wards he de­cided to re­turn to the streets and died.

I would like to be able to say that Si­mon’s story is an ex­cep­tion. But in re­al­ity it is all too fa­mil­iar. The num­ber of home­less peo­ple dy­ing on the streets or in tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion in the UK has more than dou­bled over the past five years to more than one per week. The av­er­age age of a rough sleeper when they die is 43, about half the UK life ex­pectancy. The tragedy is that it’s en­tirely within our power to do some­thing about it: home­less­ness is not a choice made by the in­di­vid­ual; it is a re­al­ity forced by gov­ern­ment pol­icy. As home­less­ness has rock­eted in the UK – up 134% since 2010 – it has fallen by 35% in Fin­land over a sim­i­lar pe­riod of time. The Fin­nish gov­ern­ment is now aim­ing to abol­ish it al­to­gether in the com­ing years.

I trav­elled to Fin­land to un­der­stand how it had done this. It turns out its so­lu­tion is painfully sim­ple: give homes to home­less peo­ple. As Juha Kaaki­nen, who has led much of the work on “hous­ing first” in Fin­land, ex­plained when I met him in Helsinki, “this takes hous­ing as a ba­sic hu­man right” rather than be­ing con­di­tional on en­gag­ing in ser­vices for ad­dic­tions or men­tal health.

This is fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent to our model in the UK, where sta­ble ac­com­mo­da­tion is only pro­vided as a “re­ward” for en­gag­ing in treat­ment ser­vices. The prob­lem with this is ob­vi­ous if you think about it: how do we ex­pect peo­ple to ad­dress com­plex per­sonal prob­lems while ex­posed to the chaos of life on the streets?

Scep­tics will ar­gue that giv­ing homes to home­less peo­ple is a recipe for dis­as­ter. Aren’t we just sub­si­dis­ing ad­dic­tion? Don’t peo­ple need an in­cen­tive to get their lives back on track and en­gage in ser­vices?

Ac­tu­ally, no. The ev­i­dence from Fin­land – as well as nu­mer­ous other pilot schemes across the world – shows the op­po­site is true. When peo­ple are given homes, home­less­ness is rad­i­cally re­duced, en­gage­ment in sup­port ser­vices goes up and re­cov­ery rates from ad­dic­tion are com­pa­ra­ble to a “treat­ment first” ap­proach. Even more im­pres­sive is that there are over­all sav­ings for gov­ern­ment, as peo­ple’s use of emer­gency health ser­vices and the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem is less­ened.

At the last elec­tion, the gov­ern­ment com­mit­ted to pilot a hous­ing first ap­proach in the UK. This isn’t good enough. Dur­ing my time in Fin­land I didn’t see one home­less per­son. Within a few hours of com­ing back to Lon­don I walked past more than 100 rough sleep­ers queue­ing for food just a few min­utes from par­lia­ment. What we need is ac­tion. End­ing home­less­ness is achiev­able if we have the will to take ac­tion.

Harry Quil­ter-Pin­ner is di­rec­tor of strat­egy at SCT, a home­less­ness and ad­dic­tions char­ity in east Lon­don. He writes here in a per­sonal ca­pac­ity

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