Imagine a place where everyone has a comfortable place to live and there are no homeless people on city streets. A place where everyone is looked after and supported. Sounds like some sort of utopia, doesn’t it?

However, in Finland this is close to the reality. Fewer people live on the streets and since the 1980s homelessness has nearly disappeared, from an estimated population of 20,000. One step in the process was to provide permanent housing to everyone and to eliminate temporary shelters.

In Australia, there are an estimated 116,000 homeless people, with 25,000 in Victoria and 38,000 in New South Wales.

At the recent National Homelessness Conference, “Ending Homelessness Together” conference in Melbourne, CEO of Finnish homeless organisation Y-Foundation, Juha Kaakinen spoke of how it takes political will to make a permanent change to homelessness.

“For the past 10 years we have been assisting homeless people by providing them with a permanent place to live and support if that’s needed,” he said.

“You have to think of housing as a basic social right, which means a change in thinking. Government This is an innovative picture. Initially there was some criticism, but soon people realised it is effective and it also produces cost savings. 

“That’s not the main reason (for the program), but it also happens that when you give a home to a homeless person it saves money, around 15,000 euros for one person for one year.”

The idea that without a home no real changes can be made in a person’s life is called “Housing First”. 

“There are very good things happening in Australia in terms of homelessness, but nothing changes unless the government acts,” Mr Kaakinen said.

“This Housing First model has been working. It has been scientifically proven and is working in several countries, but Finland is the first country to put it on a national level,” Mr Kaakinen said.

“The other point is you need affordable social housing and I was amazed to hear that in Australia it is about 4% of total housing stock - and that is absolutely nothing. It’s impossible to solve a housing problem at that level. 

“In Finland, we have around 13%. And in new housing areas, there is an agreement to build 20% affordable social housing. You can’t have this Housing First model, without at first having housing,” he said. 

The Housing First model is used by Wellways in the Doorway program. Under both models, the tenants pay rent and are subsidised only as necessary.

“Wellways uses Housing First within the private rental market, a largely untapped resource for housing. Working in partnership with real estate agents supports being able to secure homes quickly for participants. Choice is also very important to individuals, the ability to live close to supports, be able to have a pet, make a home, is essential to supporting health and housing outcomes,” said Wellways Chief Executive Officer Elizabeth Crowther. 

“Wellways has housing as a human right as one of its advocacy platforms. Having a home, where one is safe, secure and sustainable is the foundation to positive health, family and community connections,” she said.

The conference was organised by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.