Rough sleeping is the most visible form of homelessness and of society failing the most vulnerable. In this blog post, we compare the strategies of England and Finland to end rough sleeping with the Irish case to look at which policies actually succeed in the goal to end rough sleeping.
This month, the government in England responded to the growing number of rough sleepers by producing a strategy which included a target to end rough sleeping by 2027. In the strategy, funded to the tune of 100 million, the government recognises that homelessness prevention, rapid interventions and re-housing, and additional supports for migrants are key factors in their goal to end rough sleeping.
Critics of the strategy contend that while the strategy does contain some positive measures and generally is a step in the right direction in terms of homelessness policy in England, it does not address the root causes at the heart of the problem of rough sleeping. For rough sleeping to become a thing of the past, critics say key aspects of housing and welfare policy must be addressed, specifically increased investment in social and affordable housing and reform of insufficient welfare rates that push people into poverty.
Where Ireland has gone wrong
In recent times, an Irish government made its own commitment to end rough sleeping. As part of the Homeless Policy Statement in 2013, the acting government committed to end long term homelessness and to ‘eliminate the need to sleep rough in Ireland’ by the end of 2016. This ambitious target was not met. Those reading this piece and living, or possibly working, in Dublin will be acutely aware of this failure given the everyday reality of passing people rough sleeping on the streets of Dublin city. Latest official figures for Dublin recorded 110 people sleeping rough on the streets in March 2018.
The failure of the Irish government to meet its target to eliminate rough-sleeping in 2016 was a result of essentially the same root causes highlighted by critics of the recently published rough sleeping strategy in England. While the target set by the Irish government was in good faith and a welcome acknowledgement of the urgency of addressing rough sleeping, it was always bound to fail given the lack of social housing investment in the short-term and the relentless increase in rents in the private rented market, particularly in the Dublin area. Additionally, rent supplement rates were inadequate, failing to keep pace with rising rents.
Finland is the only European country where homelessness and in particular rough sleeping has decreased in recent years. Rough sleeping in the capital city of Helsinki has all but been eliminated. The explanation for Finland’s success in decreasing rough sleeping has much to do with the adoption of a Housing First scheme as mainstream national homelessness policy, integrated through state authorities, local communities and non-governmental organisations. Since a Housing First scheme was adopted, thousands have benefited by moving into their own permanent homes (often with supports) rather than the insecurity (and often dangers) of dormitory-type hostels and other forms of emergency and temporary accommodation.
A key part of the Housing First programme in Finland was the extensive conversion of shelters and emergency-type accommodation into supported housing. The last big hostel for homeless people in Helsinki with 250 beds was renovated into 80 independent apartments with on-site staff. In addition to the building of supported housing blocks, appropriate flats are purchased from the private market to be used as rental apartments for people experiencing homelessness. These investments in permanent housing solutions in Finland required a substantial amount of money. However, as many studies have shown it is more cost-effective to aim high and end homelessness instead of trying to manage it with costly emergency or temporary measures, not to mention the human and ethical reasons.
it is more cost-effective to aim high and end homelessness instead of trying to manage it with costly emergency or temporary measures, not to mention the human and ethical reasons.
The Finnish example shows that ending rough sleeping (and homelessness in general) can be achieved and that it requires a well-funded, long-term, integrated strategy, focusing on replacing temporary housing solutions with permanent ones. Promises and targets set by governments to end rough sleeping will always ring hollow if the root causes are left unaddressed. The private rental market does not and will not provide the required amount of affordable, purpose-built housing for vulnerable people seeking to escape homelessness. What is required is strong funding commitments to permanent housing solutions built or acquired by the State. Lack of affordable, adequate, secure housing for vulnerable people in any wealthy Western European country is not a matter of funding – it is a question of political will.
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