Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Why the Finnish approach to homelessness will struggle in Australia

Martin Place, Sydney. Closing the homelessness camp. Image Sydney Morning Herald

The visit to Australia by Professor Eoin O'Sullivan, editor of the European Journal of Homelessness, to present the keynote address at the Victorian Homelessness Conference. attracted considerable media attention (here, here are examples) because he suggested that Australia and other countries including the UK are approaching the growing homelessness problem from the wrong direction. He contrasted their experiences with that of Finland, which has largely solved the problem.

I think that he is right, although its not quite as simple as that.

In Australia, the current policy structure involves a hierarchy of emergency accommodation, transition housing and then longer term housing. This model is based on the idea that a homeless person needs a bed now, then because many have other mental and social problems that limit their ability to handle housing you put them into time limited transitional housing where they can be supported while they "learn" to manage their issues and then you exit them into longer term rental accommodation in social housing or the private rental market place.

The Finnish model involves immediate placement into long term secure housing. Once there, support can be provided as required.

The Australian model does not work. It is expensive and over-burdened by red tape and reporting requirements. To take some very simple examples, compliance with reporting requirements requires you to have sophisticated IT systems and full time staff that have the capacity to collect information and interface with Government information systems. This can chew up resources and rule out smaller providers with local focus who are increasingly dropping out of service supply because it's all just too hard. Government contracts for supply are short term, making it difficult to invest for the longer term or to ensure continuity in supply. And the homeless themselves face continuing insecurity because there is no certainty as the end of the transition period.

The Finnish model does appear to work. The number of homelessness has dropped. Expensive emergency and transitional housing has been greatly reduced, offsetting the costs of longer term housing. It is actually cheaper to place people in longer term housing.

The Finnish model cannot work in Australia, at least not to the same scale. Finland has a population of 5.5 million. Between 2008 and 2015, the Finns built 6,000 units specifically for homeless people. NSW, to take one state, has a population of 7.6 million. Its Social and Affordable Housing Fund, the main growth mechanism in social housing, will deliver 3,400 homes spread across the social housing sector. NSW is simply not building the number of homes required to deliver the Finnish model. The same is true in other states and territories.

For the immediate future, we are forced to satisfice, to decide on and pursue courses of action that will satisfy the minimum requirements necessary to achieve a particular goal, To illustrate.

The creation of the Martin Place homelessness camp created a political imperative to do something, to close it. .Most of those who wanted permanent accommodation have now been placed in social housing. But with social housing in short supply, their placement means that 100 or so social housing places have been taken in an already strained social housing system, extending waiting lists for others.

We have satisficed, dealt with the now, but haven't dealt with the longer term for either the homeless or others waiting for social housing.

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