Strategic Planning and Homelessness: Finland, the UK, the USA and Sweden

Article: The Finnish Homeless Strategy

Summarized by Josh Crites


Finland recently completed a second phase of a national program intended to dramatically reduce homelessness.  What is different with the Finnish approach is the country came together to create a national strategy with a total effort on using the Housing First model.  The summary report is divided into parts and around 100 pages long.  Over the next few weeks, I want to provide short summaries of each section of the report.  I am doing this because I believe the Finnish program is the most complete approach yet.  I hope this will allow more people to read up on the amazing work being done.   This blog is a short summary of the strategic planning methods being utilized in four different countries towards homelessness. The countries are Finland, the UK, the US and Sweden.  In three of the four countries the federal government is a main driver but the local authorities play a large role in administering funds and programs.  What becomes evident is Finland is the one country with a comprehensive national policy on homelessness with defined national goals and strategies.  Below is a summary of each countries strategy as defined in the research study “The Finnish Homelessness Strategy” by Nicholas Pleace, Dennis Culhane, Riitta Granfelt and Marcus Knutagard.  This is only a short summary of part 3 of their report.  I recommend reading the complete work at

Finland: In Finland all branches of government and the nonprofit world work together in a unified manner with national goals.  The state finances housing, health and social services and the programs are enriched because of constitutional guarantees for the program.  Local governments provide land use planning and the provision of social housing units.  Nonprofits play the important role of providing services and sometimes acquiring for homeless families or individuals.  The Finnish strategy towards homelessness included not only developing and acquiring more housing units but also adopting a Housing First model.  The Finnish methodology towards homelessness shows that a corresponding approach between different governmental sectors and NGO’s can make a real difference.  Within this strong partnership existed goals on how many units should be developed or acquired to combat homelessness.  The coordination between all levels of government with a comprehensive strategy in Finland is the major difference between the programs here and others in the USA, the UK and Sweden.

USA: Homeless policy and planning comes from several directions in the USA.  The federal government is a major driver with states, municipalities and  nonprofits heavily involved.  In the US, homeless policy saw dramatic shifts in 2000 when the US congress required that 1/3 of all federal homeless funds went to permanent housing programs instead of temporary programs or emergency shelter.  The 2003 Presidential budget included added funds but with the directions to continuum of cares (CoC) to plan for permanent supported housing for the new funding.  This funding continued on for several years leading to nearly double the number of permanent supportive housing units in the USA.  At the same time the federal government requested local CoC to create 10 year plans.  Local communities usually made the plans but there was no consistency across the USA and plans differed in complexity and content.  HMIS or Homeless Services Management Information Systems begin being implemented during this time.  The focus on data management is seen as a major positive of the US system.

The next major change came into existence in 2009 with the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing program (HPRP).  The program allocated $1.5 billion dollars to homeless prevention under the stimulus program.  The use of funds belonged mostly to local communities.  Corresponding moves at the federal level encouraged localities to shift housing closer to a Housing First model instead of shelter and transitional housing programs. It also brought about positive changes in the way of more housing advice services.  The authors of the report write that these changes came from lessons learned in Europe especially in the United Kingdom.  The authors report that the federal government can only try encouraging local governments to move in a certain direction when it comes to homeless policy.  Giving power to the local Continuum of Cares means the local governments are often on the sidelines which make it harder to incorporate homeless programing into the existing health and social services programs.  This is different from many European countries.

UK: UK strategic planning is characterized by an absence of a comprehensive homeless policy.  Laws from 1977 influenced strategic planning for homeless in the UK.  The initial laws required social housing agencies to give priority to homeless families and individuals considered vulnerable.  The government considered people in this category statutorily homeless.  The laws considered progressive for the time also included protections for victims of domestic violence, those will mental health issues or other health related problems.  The British state in this example directly intervened in stopping homelessness.

Many homeless people being accessed were not defined as vulnerable which met they fell outside of the statutory homeless definition.  The government designed several programs to help with this population.  One such program the Rough Sleepers Initiative (RSI) combined services with housing in a model that is similar to Housing First.  Other programs were location specific to cities and included smaller Housing First programs or even programs that rewarded investors of programs that reduced the number of homeless sleeping rough.  Other systems adapted in the UK to help support homeless persons not considered statutorily homeless.  The welfare system created a program called Supporting People.  The funding came from the central government with administration through municipalities.  The program supported reducing homelessness.  Programming in all of these cases showed strategy coming from the central government with local governments working with them.

Austerity measures affected many of these programs as well as measures that gave more autonomy to local authorities.  The author writes that many local authorities started spending different amounts on homeless programming because of the autonomy.  The change led to inconsistencies throughout the UK between the various areas of the country.   Changes in social housing policy constricted the number of available units which caused the effect of homeless people waiting years on end before receiving permanent housing. Regional variation increased as more power to make programs was given to Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland.  The lack of affordable housing units in all areas is consistent and makes it difficult to provide permeant housing for homeless.

Perhaps the largest change in the UK is the increase in preventative services across the country.  The preventative services helped decrease the number of evictions or helped rapidly rehouse those who lost housing.  The number of statutory homeless fell from 135,430 in 2002/2003 to 53,770 in 2012/2013.  In conjunction with the preventative services, changes in homeless laws allowed local authorities to house homeless in private rentals. The private rental sector helped ease the housing burdens not met by the public sector.

The authors summarize the UK experience by looking at the issues of not pursuing a comprehensive homeless strategy.  There are separate policies for those considered vulnerable or statutory homeless and those sleeping rough and considered non statutory homeless.    The other big problem is the lack of affordable housing units in the UK which makes the job of housing homeless difficult.

Sweden: There is no national strategy towards homelessness in Sweden.  A strategy in 2007-2009 called Homelessness- Many Faces, Many Peoples Responsibility listed many goals for the country in reducing and ending homelessness.  The goals of the program were not met for several reasons including the nature of the funding being spread out throughout the country.  Other problems existed including a lack of research evidence for what they wanted to do and not enough outreach to rough sleepers.  Unfortunately, the authors write the program did not meet most of its goals.  In 2012, Sweden appointed a national homeless coordinator.  The coordinator position worked with municipalities to combat homelessness.  The coordinator visited many municipalities and it became clear that most did not have a structure or strategy to address homelessness.  The coordinators advised the government to create a national homeless strategy and to implement Housing First programs.

While homeless programming in Sweden may be struggling, the strategy towards preventing evictions improved. The number of evictions nationally decreased in Sweden.  There are national guidelines and policies on eviction prevention.  New challenges are arriving in Sweden including an increase in EU migrant homelessness, youth homelessness and more women becoming homeless.

Conclusion: Homeless policy in all the countries examined is a work in progress.  Finland and the UK must statutorily fund support for housing and support services.  The local authorities administer programs in both countries and also work with non-profits to ensure the proper resources are provided for the homeless families and individuals. In the USA, federal funds are administered locally but the Continuum of Care boards have more of a say in how funds are spent. Originally the boards placed a focus on emergency housing but a shift in federal priorities caused many CoC to focus on longer term permanent housing solutions.  Sweden does not operate with a national strategy.  A focus in the UK, Sweden and the USA on eviction prevention is seen as positive and something Finland should pay attention to and consider implementing.  Lastly, the US’s focus on data and monitoring is seen as positive.  This is something all the countries should consider improving upon.

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