Kati Pohjanpalo, BLOOMBERG NEWS
Look around the streets of Helsinki, peek into the nooks of buildings or under bridges, and here’s what you won’t see: the flattened boxes, sleeping bags, even tents that are the tell-tale signs of outdoor sleeping in cities around the world.
In Finland, homelessness has fallen by roughly 40% over the past decade — despite a double-dip recession. As politicians from Berlin to London to New York struggle to solve their affordable housing crises with rent regulations and freezes, temporary accommodation, social housing and public co-financing of reduced-rent apartments, Finland took a more direct approach. The government built more homes and provided them to the people who needed them most.
The country is an outpost — one of a score worldwide — of the Housing First movement, an idea born in New York City in the early 1990s in the brain of Sam Tsemberis. A Greek-born psychologist who grew up in Montreal, Tsemberis had come to the city to work with the mentally ill, many living on the streets between periods of involuntary commitment. The nonprofits and governments struggled to help them climb a staircase that would lead eventually to independent living in a place of their own. To get there, they had to overcome their illness, substance abuse and joblessness.
“It was an impossible quandary,” Tsemberis said in an interview. “Then we started asking homeless people who were mentally ill what they wanted, and they started with housing, instead of making it a prize at the end of a set of steps that had to be navigated first.”