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How to Eradicate Homelessness

World Homeless Day

The pandemics, unemployment, and social clashes are compounding the complex issues of homelessness today. World Homeless Day is October 10, and this year brings this challenge to the forefront of our attention in unprecedented ways.

A recent trip to San Francisco's Tenderloin District challenged me to look, really look, at homelessness in a way I hadn't before. It is so tempting to look past a problem, avoid eye-contact, or leave trip-advisor reviews describing "the epicenter of San Francisco's homelessness crisis" as "absolutely disgusting", "like Gotham City" with "human feces on the street."

We are so quick to pinch our privileged, upturned nose at the problem, walk around with blind judgement and disdain, and talk about people as if they were roaches to be eradicated, rather than humans to be helped. I even watched an officer kick a man like a dog to wake him up. Although to be fair, I don't think we'd even tolerate watching someone kick a dog like that.

Tackling the Gap

San Francisco is known for its notoriously high cost of living, and its gaping wealth disparity, as the tech boom catapulted rental prices to nearly three times the national average, and home prices to nears 6 times the national average, at a median price of $1.3 million compared to $226,000 across the rest of the United States. Now the pandemic proves how truly fragile the economy can be for all sectors, as over one third of Americans could face evictions when the rental stays are lifted.

Homeless is a big problem. But not as big as you might think. And not too big to solve.

What We Can Learn from Finland

Finland is the only country in the European Union where homelessness is actually falling. In 2008 the country launched its 'radical' Housing First policy, and since its launch, the number of homeless people has decreased by 30-35%. The idea is simple: everyone is entitled to a place to live.This idea applies to people with complex psychosocial, health, and financial issues, such as addiction or poor credit ratings.

The theory is that it is easier to tackle the multiple issues faced by a person experiencing homelessness if that person has a stable home. This should be no surprise to us, if we look at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: Physiological needs (air, water, food, shelter, sleep, clothing) are the very basis on which all other needs can be built. And as long as that one is not met (consistently), it is unreasonable to expect a person to address other needs, such as Safety (security, employment, resources, health, property), Love (relationship, connect, friendship, family), Esteem (respect, status, strength, freedom), or Self-Actualization (desire to be the most one can be) with any real success.

A Human-Centered Approach

Finland considers housing a fundamental human right. And the country characterizes homelessness "as a housing problem and a violation of fundamental rights, both solvable." They do not consider it as an inevitable social problem resulting from personal issues.

Finland created a working group to come up with a long-term solution to homelessness that was not being tackled by existing approaches to the issue. The principle is that everyone can live independently with the right support. It gives people a permanent home and gets rid of the temporary accommodation model.

There are currently approximately 5,500 homeless people in Finland, in a country with a population of approximately 5.5 million. That includes those living with friends and family. (The number of 'rough sleepers' - those living on the streets - is only in the hundreds.) To compare, San Francisco has approximately 9,784 homeless in a population of 883,000, and that does not include those living with friends and family, in cars, on couches, or at other transient accommodations. San Francisco's homelessness rate is 10 times higher than the entire country of Finland.

Finland's Four Part Model

  1. Stability: To solve homelessness, start by giving someone a home, with no strings attached. Permanent housing gives people the very basic sense of stability required to begin to live independently.

  2. Autonomy: If people want to drink they can; if they want to take drugs, that's fine too. Support services are made available to treat addiction, mental health, welfare, and job applications. People can choose how to engage with services. Instead, policy and staff would encourage 'harm reduction' in order to respect a person's autonomy.

  3. Empowerment: Staff meet clients as equals and aim to build trust and empower them. Formerly homeless residents have a rental contract, just like anyone else, and pay from their own pockets or benefits afforded by the state. Finland's support is tailored individually around the needs of each resident, which is made possible to the higher standard of public social services.

  4. Community: The housing in Finland is a mix of designated standard apartments and supported housing (apartment blocks with on-site services, built or renovated specifically for chronically homeless. This support people's integration into their community and helps them build strong networks.

Creating Change by Design

These were three factors that didn't happen by chance, but happened by design and decision.

  1. Bi-Partisan Politics: The country had to mobilize strong political will to achieve this kind of success. Kaakinen explains that "there has to be some individual politician who has the social consciousness.". In Finland's case, Jan Vapaavuori (Helsinki's mayor, but then housing minister), drove the Housing First policy. He was center-right, which was an important element. When a 'radical idea' is championed by a conservative politician, 'it's very difficult for others to oppose it.' Since then, politicians across all divides have continued to support the approach.

  2. Cross-Sector Collaboration: It's not just central government alone can pull this off. It requires a wide-scale collaboration between cities, businesses, NGO's and other initiatives. A complex problem requires a multi-disciplinary solution that no single entity or sector could achieve alone.

  3. Long-Term Focus: While it's expensive to build, buy, and rent housing for homeless populations, as well as provide vital support services, the architects of the policy explains that it pays for itself. Studies have found that housing one long-term homeless person saves society around $17,000 per year, due to reduction in their use of services such as emergency health care, police force, and criminal justice systems.

Pushing Past Imperfections

Of course, Finland's Housing First model is not perfect. But neither was the U.S. Constitution. And now we have amendments. We have to start somewhere. And rather than destroying an idea with potential, it is up to us to build upon and improve on the areas it may be weak.

A critic says, "this is bad.". But criticism is an escape. It's easy to say, "that's a bad idea", because it releases people from the labor of problem solving. A statement closes the mind, and encourages you to settle for the statement you've told yourself, and to stop thinking where the period ends.

A creative asks, "how can I make something better?" A question opens up the mind, and engages the part of your brain that is responsible for creativity, empathy, and problem solving.



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