Finland has found a solution for eradicating homelessness - could it work in Norwich?
PUBLISHED: 11:34 13 February 2019
It has all but eradicated homelessness in Finland, but could Housing First be the answer to Norwich's homelessness problem?
A relatively new system aimed at solving the homelessness crisis, the concept of Housing First is simple - give a homeless person a home first with no strings attached, rather than put them in temporary accommodation.
The current reward system operating in the UK sees homeless people being secured a permanent home only after they have engaged with various other agencies that, for example, treat addiction, help with mental health problems or provide employment and benefits.
But with Housing First, a rough sleeper is given a home regardless of whether they are still abusing drink or drugs. It is founded on the principle of housing being a basic human right.
“The idea is it gives them incentive - you give them more to lose,” said Maria Pratt, from Norwich homeless charity St Martins Housing, which is leading the initiative in Norwich.
It has proved so successful in Finland that it is the only country in Europe which has consistently seen a decrease in the number of homeless people, and the model is being trialled in Norwich.
Although it is not the exact model seen in Helsinki, the project in Norwich works on the same premise - rough sleepers who are repeatedly circling through the reward system and not benefiting from it are given the chance to start afresh in a permanent home.
Research into Housing First locally began in 2013 and was led by Ms Pratt, who found 12 particular people repeatedly finding themselves back at the charity’s hostel, Bishopbridge House, more than once a year for several years.
“They would basically never leave in a planned way,” she said. “They’d come back more than one time a year - to prison, to the street and back to the hostel.”
The research allowed Ms Pratt to pilot Housing First by forming a multidisciplinary panel which included landlords willing to take on tenants on a Housing First basis.
But before it even began two people from the list of 12 died from drug overdoses, highlighting the grave situation persistent rough sleepers find themselves in.
Ms Pratt said the pilot was largely successful in that it helped to secure homes for two people who have gone on to live stable lives without falling back into the system again.
Her research now forms part of Norwich City Council’s rough sleeping strategy 2017 to 2022, with the council citing the development of Housing First on a larger a scale a priority to reduce the number of rough sleepers on the streets.
“We are running it now,” Ms Pratt said. “We had someone in their new home over Christmas, we got him decorations and he had his family round.”
After a homeless person is given secure housing, the rental income could be sought through universal credit and a grant from the council’s supporting people fund could help with living costs.
“But there’s no money there - it has been reduced considerably,” Ms Pratt revealed. “In some areas in the country it is gone entirely because of cuts.
“There used to be a ring-fence but it was taken off and that meant the money could be used in other areas.”
And it is not just the lack of funding that poses a problem. In order for Housing First to work at all there would need to be a major system overhaul in the way services are run.
Ms Pratt said: “The Finland model is quite unique, they have a different population size and they changed the whole sector into a Housing First system - the difficulty for us is we are sitting with the reward system.
“We are almost entrenched in our own system, it’s so deeply embedded in our psyche we need a whole system change and for everyone to work together. Just one organisation doing it won’t be enough.”
The model is still in its infancy in Norwich and the potential to grow relies heavily on greater support and commitment from the entire public sector.
“We have had a rough sleeper who would regularly enter emergency services, get arrested several times and go to prison, and that would cost tens of thousands of pounds in public money,” Ms Pratt said. “But a small investment in the beginning could help to reduce large costs later on.
“There are a lot of people who go through the reward system with no problems at all, but Housing First is about those we are struggling to house in the normal reward model services, those who are revolving around the system.”
Street count figures
Figures revealed last month that the number of rough sleepers in Norwich has dropped.
Street count figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, released in January, showed that the number rough sleepers fell from 30 in 2017 to 21 last year, a 30pc decrease.
It brought the rough sleeping rate, calculated per 1,000 households, down from 0.47 to 0.33. It remains above the national average of 0.20.
The majority of those rough sleeping, 18, were male, and all but three were UK nationals.
Sixteen were aged 26 and over, with three aged under 25.
Dr Jan Sheldon, chief executive of St Martins, said there no room for complacency, and said the charity saw new people arrive on the streets every week.
She said every night spent on the streets was a “personal tragedy” for someone.
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