TUYA’S COLLECTION of bongs occupies an entire bookshelf in her immaculate little flat, though she does not smoke marijuana—she just likes the way they look. Her weaknesses, alcohol and pills, landed her in a homeless shelter in Helsinki for three years. But since 2018 she has had an apartment of her own, thanks to a strategy called “housing first” with which Finland has all but eliminated homelessness.
Akbar has no such luck. Last month the Afghan migrant stood in the mud of a camp outside Paris, brushing his teeth at a hose that served as a communal shower. For two months Akbar had been living in a tent city of 3,500 Asian and African migrants, hoping to apply for refugee status.
Tuya and Akbar are at opposite ends of Europe’s growing homelessness problem. Finland is the only European country where the numbers are not rising. In other rich welfare states, escalating housing costs are pushing more people into homeless shelters. In countries with weak social services, many end up on the street. And everywhere, migrants with the wrong papers fall through the cracks.
Statistics on homelessness are patchy, but dispiriting. In 2010-18 the French government doubled the spaces in emergency accommodation to 146,000, yet cannot meet demand. In Spain the number in shelters rose by 20.5% between 2014 and 2016. In the Netherlands homelessness has doubled in the past decade. In Ireland, the number in shelters has tripled. The German government estimates homelessness rose by 4% in 2018 to a record 678,000, most of them migrants. All this has thrown a spanner into governments’ plans. For years, they have been trying to shift from providing beds for the night to housing-first strategies like Finland’s. Instead they are struggling to keep people off the streets.
The housing-first approach got its start in North America in the 1990s. Previously social-service agencies used a “staircase” model: to qualify for a subsidised flat, homeless people first had to control their behavioural problems (such as addiction, petty crime or mental illness). In the meantime they had to sleep in shelters.
But being homeless makes it hard to quit drugs or crime. Shelters are often dangerous, because they are full of desperate people. Some homeless folk prefer to sleep rough, though that is risky. Street sleepers are often robbed and often get ill. When American and Canadian cities tried first giving homeless people a place to live and then working on behavioural problems, the approach saved more money on police, jails, shelters and health care than it cost.
In 2008 Finland became the first European country to embrace housing first. The number of long-term homeless has since fallen by 21% to about 5,500. (This includes those in shelters; the number sleeping rough in Finland is negligible, as they would die of cold.) Chronically homeless people were shifted from hostels to flats with contracts under their own names. They pay rent with the help of government benefits. The government saves €15,000 ($16,500) per year in overall spending on each homeless person it houses. Hostels can be counterproductive, says Juha Kaakinen of Y-Foundation, the country’s biggest social-housing group: they “create a kind of culture of homelessness”.
The complex where Tuya lives, run by the Salvation Army, is classified as “supported housing”. There are 20 staff for the 87 residents. Each flat has a kitchen, and there is a jolly communal café. Social workers keep track of each resident’s problems and run work activities. Every year a few graduate to less dependent housing, but expectations are modest, says Antti Martikainen, the complex’s director. Persuading a troublesome resident to stop dropping rubbish out of the window is a win.
All this takes resources. Finland has hired hundreds of new social workers. In 2017 it built more subsidised public housing for low-income renters (over 7,000 units) than England, with a population one-tenth the size. Still, in a small, wealthy country to which few poor people move, it appears that homelessness is solvable.
Can big countries do the same? In France, the national emergency shelter hotline (number 115) gets 20,000 calls per day. Paris’s annual “solidarity night”, when volunteers systematically scour the city to count everyone sleeping rough, found 3,622 people in February this year.
The poor face rising rents and precarious employment, says Bruno Morel of Emmaüs Solidarité, a housing organisation. Each year from November 1st to March 31st France bars landlords from evicting tenants, and this year the Paris region created an extra 7,000 temporary winter shelter places. But Mr Morel says it needs 10,000.
Another problem is the split between native homeless, for whom municipalities are responsible, and migrants, who fall under the national government. Dominique Versini, Paris’s deputy mayor for solidarity, blames the state for the migrant camps: when the city tried to set up a reception centre to house them, she says, the government blocked it. (In November it closed the camps and moved the migrants to temporary shelters farther out.)
Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist mayor, converted the reception hall of Paris’s Hôtel de Ville into a shelter for 39 homeless women. Visiting dignitaries brush shoulders with women recovering from addiction and abuse. Ms Hidalgo has also strengthened Paris’s rent controls. The move keeps current homes cheaper but may discourage private firms from building new ones. The city is building 7500 new social-housing units a year, but Mr Morel says too few are for the very poor.
Germany is more proactive at sheltering migrants than France. But its public housing stock has shrunk dramatically: houses built with government aid can be freely sold or rented out after 30 years. Berlin, which had 360,000 social-housing units in the 1990s, now has just 100,000. Rents have doubled in the past decade. As in Paris, the city government has capped rent increases.
Europe’s homelessness problem combines two issues. Public-housing construction has slowed, and rents are rising fast, because red tape makes it so hard to build in many cities. Meanwhile, illegal immigration creates a homeless population many countries are unwilling to house. That is sabotaging the shift to housing first. France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and others have all committed to the policy. But their programmes remain a patchwork of local initiatives and pilots. “Why pilot it when you know that it works?” asks Mr Martikainen, the director of Tuya’s building in Helsinki. In most of Europe, things are not so simple. ■… See full article
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