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Look to Finland for housing solutions



This week is Homelessness Week and it gives us an opportunity to pause and reflect upon the circumstances of some of the most vulnerable individuals within our society. It also affords us a moment to consider what more we can do to overcome what has been dubbed a 'national disgrace' by numerous social welfare agencies.

Crowded Aleksi street, Helsinki, Finland. Image credit: peeterv / GettyThe statistics are stark. Tonight, approximately 116,000 Australians and 24,000 Victorians will go without access to a safe, stable and secure place to sleep. In my electorate of Ringwood, 236 people will be experiencing homelessness — sleeping rough, couching surfing, or residing in crisis or short-term accommodation.

The crises that lead people into homelessness are numerous, complex and tragic. Some individuals will find themselves suddenly homeless because of a relationship breakdown. Others are victims of abuse, trauma or family violence. Many will be suffering from health complications, addiction and mental illness. Still more will be thrust into homelessness after losing a job and being priced out of an expensive housing and rental market.

All of these people are deserving of our respect, dignity and assistance — and all are deserving of a place to call home.

Much public discussion of homelessness centres on the economic viability of housing solutions. Indeed, many politicians, like myself, will spend hours arguing for or against investment in public, social or affordable housing. Yet the idea of 'home' transcends debates about the base economic unit of housing.

Whether it's the words of Darryl Kerrigan in the classic Australian film The Castle reminding us that 'it's not a house — it's a home'; or those of German philosopher Martin Heidegger in his work Being and Time describing the intermingling of place and self; where we live contains a part of who we are.

What is clear is that people without access to secure and safe housing are not just experiencing a housing crisis — they are locked in a crisis of identity at the same time. A home is a foundation upon which a secure life can be built.


"It is an approach that focuses on the place and function of home in order to give some of the most vulnerable the tools to secure self-identity and purpose."


That's why the Andrews Victorian Labor government has started to invest in a solution. Our homelessness and rough sleeping action plan has seen record investments in preventative measures and in supported housing for women and children fleeing domestic violence. In addition, the most recent state budget included an extra $200 million for public housing.

This is a good start — and there is no doubt that these policies are saving lives and will assist people in to housing. But this alone cannot solve the crisis. It is now a time to re-evaluate our priorities: to re-imagine our solutions, and re-commit ourselves to addressing the challenge of eradicating homelessness in Victoria.

This task is not easy but neither is it impossible. When we look abroad we observe that achievable and practical solutions are working to reduce homelessness right now. Perhaps the best example comes from the Finnish city of Helsinki, which has largely eliminated rough sleeping in just ten years. The bold Housing First policy has resulted in the rate of homelessness falling by 35 per cent across the whole country.

Some will point out the differences between the Finnish setting and a state like Victoria. And they are right — Finland is much smaller than Australia, in both demographic and economic indicators. Yet when we compare the state of Victoria to the nation of Finland, we start to see similarities. Finland has a GDP of approximately AUD $420 billion and a population of around 5.5 million people. In Victoria, Gross State Product (the state equivalent of GDP) measures just over AUD $400 billion and the state has a population of just over 6.4 million people.

So how did Finland manage to achieve such radical success in their homelessness policy? The answer is disturbingly simple. It built houses. It built 3500 new or renovated housing units and provided these units unconditionally. Tenants sign a contract and pay a sliding scale rent commensurate with their income.

Most importantly, these houses are not just living quarters but are connected to essential service professionals like social workers, drug and alcohol counsellors, medical and mental health workers. They provide a foundation upon which tenants are connected to employment services and other programs that offer a helping hand when it is needed.

The strength of this program is that it provides both independence and interconnectedness for those in need. It is an approach that focuses on the place and function of home in order to give some of the most vulnerable the tools to secure self-identity and purpose.

During this Homelessness Week, we would do well to reflect on this example and others like it if we are committed to seriously addressing the issue of homelessness. Because all Australians and all Victorians should have a place to call home.



Dustin Halse headshotDr Dustin Halse is the State Labor Member for Ringwood. He has held positions in academia and the union movement prior to his election to office. Dustin has a strong interest in industrial, environmental and social welfare policy.

Main image credit: peeterv / Getty

Topic tags: Dustin Halse, homelessness



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Existing comments

Good article Dustin. Though the real number of homeless is probably double the 116,000. The practical Christian, Pastor Peter Whiffin of Southport, has designed a strong, light effective, durable, people pod that can be towed behind a bike or a motorcycle. Follow this link to see the design. https://www.goldcoastbulletin.com.au/.../9afcebee46c128cf79e08b26fe2ec0e8 Council have permitted these to be used overnight at Bus stations provided they leave by 7 am in the morning so the homeless have access to toilets and showers. But the Finland model is great. Also there are plenty of council reserves where homeless could sleep in swags should the Councils get off their high horse for a change. Of course if Dutton abandoned Manus and Nauru and stopped pretending the poor bastards who languish there are all terrorists, there would be an extra $1.2bn available to combat the issue rather than waste the money on Ferrovial who also own Heathrow airport. Charity after all, begins at home.

Francis Armstrong | 07 August 2019  

Any new ideas to help solve homelessness are to be welcomed. Indeed, the causes can be “numerous, complex and tragic”. However, take youth homelessness for example: The 1989 “Our Homeless Children” report revealed 25,000 homeless children; in 2008, another report, “A roof over every head” was done by Mackenzie and Edridge; and in March 2019 a “Report Card” by Youth Development Australia showed 43,000 homeless children. Clearly the “solutions” of the last 30 years have failed. The 2008 report stated that youth homelessness was largely the result of no-fault divorce and single parenting, but that “few would seriously want to reverse these social changes.” So, simple behavioural changes that cost society nothing are rejected while “solutions” that cost society billions of dollars are promoted. In the USA, the Seattle metro area spends $1 billion pa fighting homelessness ($100,000 for every person) yet their crisis worsens. In San Francisco, black reporter Colion Noir spoke of a “Homeless and Harm Reduction Industry” where no problems are ever solved but those dispensing charity can earn $250,000 pa. Yet Dagger John showed that a moral transformation of people could solve the worst societal problems without spending a cent of public money. https://www.city-journal.org/html/how-dagger-john-saved-new-york’s-irish-11934.html

Ross Howard | 07 August 2019  

Currently the Federal Government will add up to an additional $75 per week in rental assistance to Newstart, which is basically a contribution to landlords. If instead this could be used as payment on a near interest only loan, over a period of 55 years then virtually everyone could afford to purchase their own home, however humble. A combination of the current Victorian co-ownership scheme to pay the deposit expanded, a 55 year fixed interest loan (as were the War Service Homes after WW2) and natural inflation would see all people with a chance of gaining equity in a home asset that would substantially reduce homelessness. Any Social housing needs to be on a Rental/Purchase basis. This also was done previously with Housing Commissions. Full employment has rarely been achieved and with rampant technology where one person on a machine can produce a thousand times what they could a hundred years ago, this is even less likely, yet our society has more wealth than ever before.

Bruce Ecurb | 07 August 2019  

“Tonight, approximately 116,000 Australians and 24,000 Victorians will go without access to a safe, stable and secure place to sleep. In my electorate of Ringwood, 236 people will be experiencing homelessness….” Multiply each of those numbers by $330,000 as the cost of a two-bedroom unit and get $38.28 billion, $7.92 billion and $77.88 million respectively (as capital cost only). Of course, some of the homeless will be family units and 116,000 Australian and 24,000 Victorian homeless individuals will work out to a lesser number of homeless family units, which may or may not change the first two sums to any significant extent. (Let’s assume all the Victorians are single.) ‘Build more houses’ is saying that this welfare problem can be fixed by throwing money at it. If the costs to be shouldered above seem to us to be proportionate to the numbers of homeless involved, why don’t we borrow the money from China to test if you can fix a welfare problem by throwing cash at it?

roy chen yee | 08 August 2019  

The Victorian govt is not addressing the increasing levels of homelessness in chronically mentally ill people. Yes it was important to close the big mental hospitals. But in doing that there is no longer a place of ‘asylum’ for those who cannot manage mainstream living, who need supported living. As always services fall back onto the voluntary organisations, many of them auspiced by religious groups, so often criticised by secular society. Children leaving care are another vulnerable group, for whom there is negligible government concern. Why is the government allowing boarding houses to be sold to private investors, often overseas developers, to be turned into up market flats? And why is it not turning empty docklands flats into housing for the homeless? It gives priority to developers over providing places to stay for those without homes. I see little practical change in homelessness levels despite the claims in the article.

Rosemary Sheehan | 08 August 2019  

I've just returned from Canada & USA, and the most confronting aspect of my trip was the high levels of homelessness. Not only in numbers but their lack of connection - unlike here, no begging or asking you for something - they were just there, passively existing before me, everywhere I went. I found myself wondering if homelessness is a symptom of the failure of western democracy, the rise of capitalism and the necessary leaving behind of a section of the community? In Seattle I visited the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and learned of their wonderful projects, assisting vulnerable people all over the world. But wouldn't it be courageous if creative minds like theirs were put to assisting the vulnerable people right at their doorstep.

Margaret M | 08 August 2019  

Margaret M. You wonder if homelessness represents a failure of Western democracy. I would suggest you are right. Things like homelessness, drug addiction, violence, suicide, self harm/mutilation, etc, etc have all accelerated over the last 30 years or so in parallel with the remarkably rapid abandonment of the underwriters of Western civilisation itself, Judeo-Christianity and the Law.

john frawley | 09 August 2019  

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