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Here’s Y: What Sudbury can learn from how Finland tackled its homelessness crisis

In a partnership between federal and municipal governments, Finland created a non-profit corporation call the Y-Foundation that has had tremendous success at putting people in homes and helping them stay there

In Finland in 1967, almost 50 people who were homeless froze to death outside. 

An overnight shelter was shut down the year previous and no other replaced it, leaving 500 people without a place to stay. The year 1967 was also the 50th anniversary of Finland’s independence, in honour of which, 950 prisoners were released. 

A symbolic gesture that meant 950 more people on the street.  

By 1989, there were approximately 17,500 people without homes in Finland. 

Today, there are 4,600 and a majority of them are living with friends and family, not on the street. This is in a country with a population of 5.531 million (2020).

Part of the success Finland has had tackling its homelessness issue is a partnership between the federal government, municipalities, and the Y-Säätio — or ‘Y-Foundation’ — a non-profit founded in 1985 that is now the fourth largest landlord in Finland, with 18,000 apartments operating in 57 municipalities.

As many readers are aware, Greater Sudbury is having its own homelessness crisis, with more than 300 people identified on the last point-in-time count. That number has dropped as the winter has gotten colder and the city has moved some into apartments, some into hotel rooms and paid to send many back to their own communities, but it is expected the number will grow again as the temperatures warm come spring.

With the local situation in mind, reached out to ask the Y Foundation what makes Finland’s approach different and why it has had such success. We spoke to Juha Kahila, head of international affairs for the Y-Foundation and program coordinator for Housing First Europe Hub.

To begin, here are some facts to help with comparison. Ontario has a population of 14.57 million people. 

In 2018, without the worsening effects of the pandemic, Ontario municipalities reported that there were over 16,000 Ontarians experiencing homelessness on any given night. Unlike Finland’s number, that 16,000 does not include those who are precariously housed or ‘couch-surfing’ nor does it include those who are on the cusp of homelessness. 

Finland’s social systems are more encompassing than Canada’s and offer opportunities, like free tuition, that are not afforded to Canadians. However, their systems are still considered ‘self-advocate,’ which means those who are not able to navigate the systems on their own will encounter obstacles. This is also true of many federal and provincial systems.

The Finnish Housing First approach was introduced in 2007 as a housing solution for the most vulnerable homeless people. In Canada, Housing First policies were introduced in 2013 as part of the federal government's Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS), which became Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy in 2019, making private or public organizations across Canada eligible to receive subsidies to implement the Housing First program.

Housing First is an operating principle that sees, first and foremost, someone housed immediately, with support, in a place of their choosing. There is also the requirement to separate housing from other services. For instance, Housing First does not require someone to progress through treatment before being offered housing.

Immediate housing with support is adopted here in Sudbury by the Homelessness Network, as described to by Ray Landry, executive director. 

“Housing is a human right,” Landry told “Our philosophy is that we can get them housing first and then resolve the other issues.” 

He notes the length of waiting lists for help — for mental health, for addictions — and asks, “Do they have to live outside all that time” while awaiting services? 

But part of the issue is that there is no affordable housing currently available in Sudbury. 

Permanent housing with a lease and individually tailored support services were the core elements in the Y-Foundation approach. Finland also saw a need for an increased supply of affordable rental housing, and made changes. 

Since then, many hostels and shelters have been converted into supported housing units with independent apartments for the tenants. And not only are people finding their supported housing sustainable, they are then moving into their own homes and managing them entirely. 

The Y-Foundation is proud to say that since 1987, 12,000 people have received a home. 

Kahila told the affordable housing was built through a partnership between developers and cities. One made of “carrots and sticks.” 

“There is a housing first unit that used to be a dormitory. The capital city of Finland, Helsinki, gave the service provider ‘carrots and sticks’,” said Kahila. “The carrot was that if they converted the dormitory into a Housing First unit, the city would share the costs. The stick was that if they did not make the change, the city would no longer buy services from them, as the city was committed to making the change to an housing first model.”

Kahila said it is important that there are clear measures from the government. “It cannot just be down to the willingness of developers.”

In Helsinki, for example, when a new residential area is built, at least 30 per cent of the area must be built with affordable housing. The aim is to reach 35 per cent in the future. Kahila said this will ensure that areas do not become unequal and that people on low incomes can also afford housing. “However, all this should be done in cooperation, so that everyone has a clear idea of what is being done and why.” 

Kahila has been working in housing services for 10 years, beginning with youth housing. “Working with young people, it was amazing to see what great things they could achieve once they had the housing and support they needed,” he said. “Many of my own clients from that time have found employment or started school again.”

Each renter must pay a lease amount, under the Housing First rules, and while they are often covered by the social security income provided to Finlanders, paying the rent is an important part of the Housing First approach: tenancy rights and responsibilities, same as everyone else. 

“Residents pay their own rent because it gives them a sense of ownership of their home,” said Kahila. “Subsidised housing gives people a new chance to start with a clean slate, without the baggage or prejudices of the past.”

He also said that freedom of choice is important. “People are the best experts on their own affairs,” said Kahila. “Of course, people will make bad choices, but workers need to offer support in these situations to help people move on from the consequences of bad choices. This can also bring the relationship of trust closer, as the client knows that the worker will stand by them, despite the fact that not all choices may always be the best possible.”

The placement of housing units, throughout the community, is also important to a housing first philosophy. 

“In Helsinki, the units are located in the city centre and in the immediate vicinity of the city centre. This is because the services that residents use are close by and this helps them to use them,” said Kahila.

“Furthermore, I think it is a ridiculous idea to isolate vulnerable people.”

 In Finland, as part of the housing agreements, the housing unit tenants perform neighbourhood work, like staff led litter pickups, which Kahila said contributes to good relations with the neighbourhood. 

Kahila said that Finland, too, has issues with “the phenomenon of NIMBY (a.k.a Not In My Back Yard),” but shares the example of a housing unit that was located in one of the most affluent areas of Helsinki. 

In the beginning, the neighbourhood was quite resistant, but after “neighbourhood evenings”, town halls where the neighbourhood could voice any concerns and ask questions about the unit's activities and the police were invited to give their views on the situation, the situation changed for the better. 

“A few weeks ago there was an article in one of Finland's biggest newspapers about a shop near the unit which has started to cooperate with the unit and offers residents opportunities for work experience,” said Kahila. “There are also statistics that show that, in fact, the security of the areas has also improved as a result of the units, because otherwise these people would be in the same areas but on the street without the security of their own homes.”

There are challenges, of course, including a growing need. 

“There is a growing number of people who need more and more support at the moment,” said Kahila. 

There is also a shortage of small affordable apartments in Finland, especially in the Helsinki metropolitan area. 

In addition, “the housing first model is not yet implemented throughout Finland and we still have a lot of work to do to ensure that everyone has access to equal services,” said Kahila, but in no way deterred. “The housing first model works. Finland can be used as an example, but there are also many studies and experiences in other countries that show this. Scotland, for example, is doing great work to reduce homelessness and the housing first model has been taken as a signpost there.” 

Kahila said It is also important to remember that, over time, the housing first model also saves money. 

In Tampere, for example, the supported housing unit in Härmälä reached almost €250,000 (about $355,000 Canadian) in savings in one year thanks to the model.

The savings in terms of the services needed by one person can be up to €9,600 a year when compared to the costs that would result from that person being homeless. Additionally, housing one long-term homeless person saves about €15,000 in public funds per year.

“When a homeless person gets housing and the support they need, great things can happen. Not overnight, but over time. You have to have patience and faith in people.”

Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with She covers the diverse communities of Sudbury, especially the vulnerable or marginalized, including the Black, Indigenous, newcomer and Francophone communities, as well as 2SLGBTQ+ and issues of the downtown core.


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Jenny Lamothe

About the Author: Jenny Lamothe

Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with She covers the diverse communities of Sudbury, especially the vulnerable or marginalized.
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